Home health How a composer with dementia got to No 1 paul harvey

How a composer with dementia got to No 1 paul harvey

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Not many 80-year-olds have a hit single. Paul Harvey has managed to write one while living with dementia.

With the help of the BBC Philharmonic, Four Notes – Paul’s Tune sped to the top of the iTunes and Amazon charts last week – another high point in an extraordinary few weeks for the former music teacher.

It began when his son Nick recorded him improvising a two-minute piece from four notes – F natural, A, D and B natural – and posted the footage on Twitter. After Radio 4’s Broadcasting House featured the song, listeners suggested that it should be played by an orchestra, so the show’s host, Paddy O’Connell, arranged for the song to be recorded by the BBC Philharmonic.

In the whirlwind of attention that has followed, the highlight for Paul was the chance to speak to composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. “That was very special – I’ve always been an incredible fan,” he said. “‘I love your tune, I’m going to steal it,’ he said. He can have it all for nothing.

“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.”

Dementia’s cruelty is never far away though. There are times, his son says, when Paul cannot remember that he spoke to Sondheim, or play the tune that created the commotion.

“I asked him to play it again this afternoon and he couldn’t remember it because it was an improvisation,” Nick said. “It wasn’t a composition. It wasn’t something that he had crafted over days or hours. But because I captured it, it’s now living, and it’s become an entity, which is astonishing.”

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Sitting at the keyboard, his forgetfulness disappears. “My memory’s fine when I’m playing the piano,” Paul said. “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”

Music can help relieve depression, anxiety and other problems associated with dementia, according to professor Helen Odell-Miller, director of the Cambridge Institute for Music Therapy Research at Anglia Ruskin University. Even those in the most severe stages of the disease, who could not speak or dress themselves, could still improvise music, she said.

Researchers believe music helps because it taps into memories of sounds that we hear as babies.

Mothers were naturally musical when they interacted with their babies, so before they learned to understand words, they could understand their parents’ expressions through rhythm, pitch and tempo, Odell-Miller said. “It is this natural hard-wired element of the brain and the social interactions and musical language that result and build up from this, which lead to procedural musical memories.

“The start of a song triggers the memory of the whole song, which is owing to the natural pre-language flow of expression. Songs involve patterns and we learn to communicate through patterns and these patterns become embedded in our ‘musical brain.’”

Paul Harvey at the keyboard.
Paul Harvey at the keyboard. Photograph: Andy Hall/The Observer

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.

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Grace Meadows, programme director for Music for Dementia, said music could also help people less naturally talented than Paul. “It is most effective when it’s personalised and meaningful,” she said. “Our radio station, M4D Radio, has been developed to provide era-specific music for people living with dementia and their carers. It is particularly important now when so many other musical activities and services are on hold or no longer available due to Covid.”

Paul Harvey was born in Stoke-on-Trent and studied piano at the Guildhall School of Music. He became a composer – his Rumba Toccata is still used in grade 6 piano exams – and a concert pianist, appearing on the BBC Home Service in 1964, but decided to become a music teacher shortly before his eldest son Nick was born.

He spent 20 years teaching at the Imberhorne school, a comprehensive in East Grinstead whose former pupils include Cutting Crew’s Nick Van Eede, famous for his hit ballad (I just) Died in Your Arms.

Five years ago, Paul moved into sheltered accommodation.

“The moment we realised that something was awry properly when Ali, my wife, invited dad over for Sunday lunch and he arrived at 6am, looking flustered and confused,” Nick said. “That was a turning point.”

There was a fall at home, then a 12-week hospital stay that prompted a cognitive decline. Occupational therapy, regular home care and a memory clinic have all played a part in slowing down dementia, but Nick said his father had often been depressed by his condition.

Five weeks ago, it “wasn’t a great day”, Nick said. Even piano wasn’t helping much. “I remembered this old party trick he used to do, where someone would give him four random notes and he’d compose something on the spot. The first time I saw him do this was when I was nine, he was teaching at a summer school. I remember the pride I felt.

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“So I picked four notes out of the ether and dad did exactly the same thing. And luckily, I filmed it.”

Nick put the footage on Twitter, and “it went crazy”. Thousands of retweets later, the BBC Philharmonic musicians recorded their parts individually in their homes, and their performances were blended with the audio from Nick’s original footage.

“I’ve always felt that his music deserves a large audience, and the fact that now, he is finally getting it – it fills my heart with joy,” Nick said. “For those living with dementia, the ability to communicate is one of the last things to go. I wouldn’t be surprised if this also applies to Dad and his improvising. Dementia won’t be shutting him up for quite a while yet.”





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