Every now and again an ordinary individual does something so magical that even our Covid-battered nation sits up and takes notice. Captain Tom Moore did it in April with his 100 laps of his garden that raised more than £32 million for the NHS. We all fell in love with his determination and passion to reach his goal.  

In a similar vein, in September we were treated to the extraordinary talent of Paul Harvey, a former music teacher now living with dementia, who created an improvised tune based on four notes (F natural, A, D and B natural) suggested to him by his son, Nick. The tune, captured by Nick and posted on Twitter, immediately went viral and has culminated in a number-one single on both the Amazon and iTunes charts, a recording of the piece with the BBC Philharmonic, chats on the phone with the composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim, multiple media appearances and more than £1 million raised for a music and dementia charity… not bad for an 80-year-old living with an incurable disease. 

For many who live with dementia or care for loved ones who have the illness, it will come as no surprise that music can bypass the cruel clutches of dementia and bring a respite and release and a reconnection to a dormant talent. Harvey has spoken about his forgetfulness (he sometimes cannot remember that he spoke to his hero, Sondheim, or even how the tune goes that he created…). But sit him down at a piano, and the inspiration comes flooding back. ‘My memory’s fine when I’m playing the piano,’ Paul told The Guardian newspaper. ‘I can remember all the things I’ve done. When I am looking at television or other things around where I live, then I start forgetting things. And if something is not in the right place, then I panic a bit. But if I’m a bit stressed, I will go and play the piano, and I’ll be alright then.’ 

Jason Warren, professor of neurology at the Dementia Research Centre at University College London, said one reason people with dementia can continue to play music is because it “makes sense on its own terms”.  

“So unlike a lot of the tests and the things we might ask people with dementia to do in the clinic, for example, or in their everyday lives, music to some extent is almost self-contained.” 

Speaking to the Guardian, Harvey said, ‘I didn’t expect all this fuss and palaver. Fortunately, because of my age, I’m a bit laid-back about the whole thing, in the nicest possible way. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind conducting the BBC Philharmonic – they were fantastic. I would love that.’  

Proceeds from the single are going to the Alzheimer’s Society and Music for Dementia, which campaigns for people with the condition to have free access to music as part of their care.