CNMN > Projects > Music Takes You Higher: Collaborative Song-Writing with People Living with Dementia

Pia Kontos, Sherry Dupuis and Christine Jonas-Simpson

  • Voice
  • Acoustic instruments
  • Rock band instruments
  • Adults
  • Seniors
  • Intergenerational

As long as it takes, but normally 6+ months

  • Community associations
  • Health
  • Memory
  • Memory conditions (e.g. Dementia care, Alzheimer
  • Mental health

Music Takes You Higher: Collaborative Song-Writing with People Living with Dementia


What does col­lab­o­ra­tive music-mak­ing mean to you?

“I quick­ly real­ized that that was the point, in a way it was just to bring peo­ple togeth­er. I would arrive as myself where I was at as an empa­thet­ic human being and all of the mem­bers would meet me there with their indi­vid­ual life expe­ri­ences and how they were feel­ing on the day. And we would engage with each oth­er and the art that we would bring to the space.” (Artist, The Bitove Method)


Pur­pose: To use col­lab­o­ra­tive song-writ­ing to under­stand what music means to peo­ple liv­ing with demen­tia, build and nur­ture com­pas­sion­ate rela­tion­ships with peo­ple liv­ing with demen­tia, artists, vol­un­teers, stu­dents and oth­ers, and chal­lenge stig­ma­tiz­ing approach­es used with peo­ple liv­ing with dementia.


The Project and Approach: Most approach­es to music with peo­ple liv­ing with demen­tia are ground­ed in the bio-med­ical mod­el or per­son-cen­tered care. The bio­med­ical mod­el focus­es on dis­ease, symp­tom man­age­ment, and func­tion­al out­comes, where­as per­son-cen­tered care focus­es on the indi­vid­ual and uni-direc­tion­al inter­ac­tions. Both of these approach­es fail to cap­ture the cen­tral­i­ty of rela­tion­ships to growth, qual­i­ty of life and well-being. Our approach is ground­ed in rela­tion­al car­ing, where we inten­tion­al­ly attend to rela­tion­al process­es and use music for life enrich­ment, as a means to sup­port rela­tion­al capac­i­ties for con­nec­tion, and to fos­ter com­pas­sion­ate and rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion­ships among diverse peo­ple. See the Trans­lat­ing Rela­tion­al Car­ing into Rela­tion­al Arts hand­out and short video clip called “Music and Rela­tion­al Car­ing” for more information.


Music Takes You High­er orig­i­nat­ed as a musi­cal co-cre­ation between song­writer and Gram­my award win­ner, Simon Law, and mem­bers of the Dot­sa Bitove Well­ness Acad­e­my (DBWA), now known as The Bitove Method. You can learn about Simon Law, the facil­i­ta­tor of our col­lab­o­ra­tive music-mak­ing process, in the short video clip “Meet Simon”. You can also meet some of the mem­bers liv­ing with with demen­tia that were involved in our process by watch­ing the video clips “Meet Allan”, “Meet Robert”, and “Meet Sheru”. 

The DBWA is an arts-based acad­e­my for peo­ple liv­ing with demen­tia where the arts are val­ued not as ther­a­py or clin­i­cal inter­ven­tion but as a medi­um for rela­tion­al car­ing and life enrich­ment. The song was part of a larg­er project con­duct­ed by Chris­tine Jonas-Simp­son, Sher­ry Dupuis, Pia Kon­tos and Gail Mitchell and fund­ed by the Alzheimer’s Soci­ety of Cana­da Research Pro­gram, to explore expe­ri­ences of musi­cal engage­ment and the mean­ing of music in the lives of acad­e­my mem­bers. The project cul­mi­nat­ed in the cre­ation of a doc­u­men­tary film to cap­ture those mean­ings and expe­ri­ences and chal­lenge the stig­ma asso­ci­at­ed with demen­tia. You can view the trail­er or the full doc­u­men­tary film by click­ing on the video links below.


Our Process:


Step 1: Start with a rela­tion­al activ­i­ty that helps the mem­bers in your groups con­nect with one anoth­er. It could be as sim­ple as play­ing record­ed music or live col­lab­o­ra­tive music and then hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion about the music and what it means to them. Alter­na­tive­ly invite peo­ple to be involved in a shar­ing cir­cle of curios­i­ty where mem­bers con­tribute thoughts on how they are feel­ing and sup­port each oth­er in those feel­ings. What­ev­er activ­i­ty you choose, use it as way to tran­si­tion between what peo­ple were doing before arriv­ing and their involve­ment in your col­lab­o­ra­tive song-writ­ing session/class/engagement.


Step 2: Begin the lyric writ­ing engage­ment using a brain­storm­ing ses­sion. You can explore any top­ic of inter­est to your group; ours was what music means and we asked ques­tions, such as:


  • “What does music mean to you?”
  • “What is it like to have music in your lives?”
  • “How does music relate to you?”


Before you begin, explain what you are doing and why. Record all the respons­es on a flip chart. To embody the rela­tion­al car­ing prin­ci­ples, you will want to be sure to include all mem­bers of your group in this cre­ative process. To help mem­bers think about what music means, engage them active­ly in music-mak­ing through singing, drum­ming, danc­ing, play­ing ukulele etc., and then ask what that expe­ri­ence felt like to draw out more ideas of what music means to them. You can use what­ev­er cre­ative process fits your group and facil­i­tates  free­dom to par­tic­i­pate and express ideas in diverse ways.

Here are some exam­ples of our mem­bers’ answers to the ques­tions that were asked:


  • Music to me is like when you eat a nice piece of cake […]; it just comes to me and I just love it.”
  • To me, music is the great­est equal­iz­er because music light­ens the room.”
  • “Music is my whole world.”
  • “[Music] makes you hap­py and takes the sad part away.”
  • Music is soul connection.”
  • Music is a mes­sage sent to the brain to enjoy happiness”


Step 3: Col­lab­o­rate in the writ­ing of the lyrics. The respons­es to the ques­tions (Step 2) and the brain­storm­ing session(s) become the basis for the col­lab­o­ra­tive writ­ing of song lyrics. Review the words, phras­es and images record­ed on the flip chart sheets, and invite mem­bers to look for com­mon themes, words, and ideas, or quotes. Ask what ideas go togeth­er; you may find one lead­ing idea emerges. For us it was “music takes you high­er”. This ideas stage, where you are explor­ing dif­fer­ent words and lyrics is a key stage. This is your mem­bers’ own expres­sion of an idea, which should always be cen­tral. Work col­lab­o­ra­tive­ly with your group to devel­op phras­es based on com­mon themes; you can choose to rhyme or not. Your role is to open up paths to cre­ative expres­sion for peo­ple liv­ing with demen­tia and find ways to make their con­tri­bu­tions work together.


Step 4: Cre­ate the music, which you can do by start­ing with either the melod­ic line and then adding har­mo­ny, or with a series of chords. Depend­ing on your famil­iar­i­ty with writ­ing music you can choose for the melody to reflect the lyrics, or not. Start by ask­ing the group ‘What emo­tions do you feel from our lyrics?’ ‘What emo­tions do you want our song to cap­ture?’ Answers to these and sim­i­lar ques­tions help estab­lish the tone and style for the music. This step can be under­tak­en col­lec­tive­ly with a facil­i­ta­tor or work­ing with a musi­cian who cre­ates the melody and then uses the col­lab­o­ra­tive process for feed­back and devel­op­ment. Whichev­er cre­ative route you take for the music, you will want to ask your entire group what they think of the melody line and be open to their sug­ges­tions and ideas for how it might go dif­fer­ent­ly, leav­ing open the pos­si­bil­i­ty of change and reassess­ment so that the music is owned by every­one. Active, care­ful lis­ten­ing, and repeat­ing words your group is using will help you to embody rela­tion­al caring.


Step 5: Com­bine the music and lyrics, share, prac­tice and “per­form” with your group. Using the musi­cal and rela­tion­al tal­ents with­in your group will sup­port build­ing con­nec­tions and being open to mutu­al influ­ences and learn­ing. Invite your par­tic­i­pants to share if they play an instru­ment (or have done so in the past) and look for ways to include that con­tri­bu­tion. Include them in devel­op­ing rhyth­mi­cal riffs for the song, for exam­ple. Your com­mu­ni­ty will sing their words from the heart. If you choose to record your song, the rela­tion­al car­ing phi­los­o­phy will guide you to include all mem­bers of the group, by embrac­ing their abil­i­ties, sup­port­ing the cre­ativ­i­ty of your group, and remem­ber­ing not to wor­ry about any per­ceived inac­cu­ra­cies. Simon describes more about our process in the video clips “Trans­for­ma­tion­al Pow­er of Music Mak­ing” and “Col­lab­o­ra­tive Cre­ative Process”. Con­sid­er teach­ing your group Music Takes you High­er using the Karaoke Sing-Along ver­sion avail­able below.


Tips and strate­gies for sup­port­ing rela­tion­al music-mak­ing can be found in the Trans­lat­ing Rela­tion­al Car­ing into Rela­tion­al Arts handout.

Read More +



Image Gallery