On Cyrus Meurant's first visit to the aged care home, in September 2014, the owner produced an electric keyboard and asked him to play. The young composer started with his own short piece, Interlude, and then one for the organ called Souvenir. His impromptu performance on the dinky instrument lasted barely 10 minutes. But its effect on the residents was remarkable.
Those who had been sitting listlessly suddenly lifted their heads and listened. Some walked towards him, moving to the melody and recalling songs, memories and emotions thought long-lost. Within their muddled minds, something about the music rang clear.
Meurant, who is completing his PhD in composition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, describes the experience as "an awakening".
"I had their attention and they all listened, and for that little piece of time they were engaged with the music," he says. "They went from not wanting to talk to me, to having conversations about their lives. One lady was asking about the music and wanting to play the piano."
That short performance sparked something bigger: an entire album composed specifically for people with dementia. The project, believed to be the first in Australia's aged care sector, was commissioned by Brisbane-based Beaumont Care to play to residents within its high-level dementia home in the city's north.
Proprietor Linda Beaumont, who asked Meurant to play at their first meeting in 2014, hopes hearing the music in common areas or on personal MP3 players might bring comfort, energy and joy to residents with the degenerative condition.
"People when they hear music react in various ways. We have awakening moments where people speak when they haven't spoken for a long time or have memory flashes," she says.
"We also want to quieten the mind because there is a lot of noise in the heads of people with dementia. We are hoping to have some significant calming effect."
Meurant, a softly-spoken 34-year-old with neat hair and red striped socks, composed four musical pieces for each weekday, featuring piano, flute, viola and vibraphone.
He crafted his compositions to match the typical moods of people with dementia at different times of the day: music in the morning to stir them; in the afternoon, when many residents feel agitated, music to offer comfort; something lyrically robust over dinner; and softer and ambient music overnight.
"It often gets their attention and can bring clarity to their mind," he says. "They can listen to the music and it can bring them joy."
A 2015 British study of dementia patients in care homes showed music therapy improved their symptoms and wellbeing, including communication, memory, agitation, apathy and anxiety.
Macquarie University clinical neuropsychologist Amee Baird, who is researching the effects of music in dementia care, says music activates those parts of the brain that control movement, emotions and memories in people with Alzheimer's disease, the most common type of dementia.
Studies show the regions of the brain normally involved in musical memory are strikingly well preserved in Alzheimer's patients. Listening to music or participating in musical activities can reduce symptoms such as memory loss, depression and anxiety, Baird says. Music can also alter physiological responses, such as the heart rate and breathing.
"Music is uniquely effective in bringing to mind personal memories and associations," she says. "Music creates a link to a person's past. It is also a way of non-verbal communication, people will suddenly start hearing a song and connect with someone."
Baird says she recently taught a 91-year-old woman with severe dementia a Norwegian tune that she had not heard before. She returned a fortnight later to discover the woman could still sing along to the song, despite not recognising her.
"It seems music is perhaps an exception to the loss of the ability to learn and record new things," she says.
Meurant's 20 compositions will be released next week on a CD titled Monday to Friday, available in Sydney at Red Eye Records and Repressed Records.
Recently he performed Monday III for me during a visit to the conservatorium. The music is hauntingly beautiful. It makes me feel calm and wistful.
He typically composes music for the ballet, opera and theatre. This was his first work for the health sector. "It's nice to write music that is useful and helpful," he says. "Music has this capacity to communicate with all of us, regardless of our mental state. I am starting to realise how fundamentally music connects with us as people."