Making Dementia Matter Through Sound

The Stem&Luister Project of the Genetic Choir


  • Marjolein Gysels No Affiliation, Faro, Portugal
  • Chris Tonelli University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands
  • Thomas Johannsen Genetic Choir, Stichting Here and Now - interdisciplinary instant composition, Amsterdam, The Netherlands



voice; sound; improvisation; dementia; self; relations


This paper investigates the working practices of the Genetic Choir and the “Stem&Luister” project, in which the ensemble uses voice, sound and improvisation to explore and develop ways of connecting with people with dementia, thereby seeking to improve the experience of care. Their musical sessions are multilayered. First, through listening they develop a sense of the people and the environment. Then through introducing their vocal practices, they breach the prevailing sonic regime. Second, through immersing the residents in sound-making and singing, they draw on the material and sensorial qualities of sound. This gives access to those who were difficult to reach and offers both an alternative means of communication and enables the recognition of selves. A third layer concerns the strategic use of improvisation, of which the deployment of “ensemble” and “instant composition” are analysed. Recognising the compositional efforts in improvisation shows their work to be a form of design. It facilitates attention to personhood, relations, and diversity. This specific practice appears as an untapped resource for the health and wellbeing of people with cognitive and speech impairments. Theoretically, the findings have implications for the notion of care and provide support from practice to existing neurological evidence of the significance of music as a fundamental faculty for survival and wellbeing.

Author Biographies

Marjolein Gysels, No Affiliation, Faro, Portugal

Marjolein Gysels is an anthropologist with 30 years of research experience. Her background spans health care research, social science, arts and humanities, with the common thread of the focus on care in her work. She gained experience in global health through her work in multidisciplinary research programmes on HIV/AIDS care, and malaria prevention across Africa and PNG. At King’s College London she developed
expertise in palliative care, long-term care, care for older people, and people with dementia. She developed collaborations in the field of the arts and artistic research. She led and conducted numerous projects with artists and other stakeholders on societal challenges as ageing, dementia, diversity and inclusion.

Chris Tonelli, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands

Chris Tonelli is Assistant Professor of Music in the Popular Music, Sound and Media Cultures specialization of the Arts, Culture and Media program at the University of Groningen. His book Voices Found: Free Jazz and Singing (2020, Routledge) examines the history of improvisational soundsinging and theorizes the social effects of human vocal sounds audiences hear as non-human. Other recent work includes articles on video game music and identity (for the Cambridge Companion of Video Game Music) and reception of scat singing (for the Cambridge volume Jazz and American Culture). Dr. Tonelli is also active as a community music practitioner and researcher through his conducting and organization of improvisational “Vocal Exploration” choirs.

Thomas Johannsen, Genetic Choir, Stichting Here and Now - interdisciplinary instant composition, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Thomas Johannsen is a performer, teacher and researcher in the field of interdisciplinary improvisation, with a special focus on the human voice and self-organisation. He is the artistic director of Amsterdam-based vocal improvisation ensemble the Genetic Choir. His work often connects questions of relating to the world around you with artistic questions about sound and music. Thomas teaches internationally and has brought his take on embodied voice improvisation and instant composition to countries such as France, Italy, Czech Republic, England, Germany, the United States and Japan. He is also co-founder of WhatIIIF? – an international research festival of interdisciplinary improvisation that is nomadic, with a yearly edition in a different European city.

photo of authors, Gysels et al.




How to Cite

Gysels, M., Tonelli, C., & Johannsen, T. (2024). Making Dementia Matter Through Sound: The Stem&Luister Project of the Genetic Choir. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 24(1).