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Exploring songs for dementia - a guide to discovering meaningful music

man with dementia listening to music playlist

How can you find artists and songs that help with dementia care?

Experts suggest using personalized music to engage and comfort people living with dementia. Discovering the songs that connect can be challenging.  

This article provides tips for exploring music preferences and creating playlists.

The Power of Music Playlists for Dementia

Identifying songs that evoke comfort and joy 

There is a special connection in the brain between music, memories, and emotions. This connection is especially impactful for people living with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. Personalized music can help these individuals socialize, establish routines, and enhance wellbeing.  

Yet - the difference between enjoyable music and unpleasant sounds is a matter of taste. Everyone has unique reactions to different styles of music  

Even those without a music background have a natural reaction to certain styles. Our reactions to music can range from extreme delight - to general indifference - to complete disgust.

People that are living with dementia retain the ability to react to music. Identifying songs that spark positive reactions can help keep the mind active and improve the quality of life. However, discovering those songs can be tricky.

ella fitzgerald music quote

Studies show that our music preferences are formed between the ages of 10 and 30. Many care partners may be unfamiliar with music preferences from that time.  

It can also be hard for people that have dementia to communicate their likes and dislikes. People with dementia need the support of their care team to build music playlists.


Creating a Music Playlist

How to get started documenting your loved one's favorite music

There are a wide variety of options for listening to personalized music. Some care teams may have access to CDs and other offline music collections. There are also music apps that make it easy for caregivers to explore songs, save favorites, and create playlists.

Regardless of how you listen to music, it can be helpful to start small. Simply create a list of your loved one's favorite music genres and artists.

The goal is to better understand the listener's music preferences. Once you have identified meaningful artists and songs, you can create a plan for making music part of the care routine.

The Music Planning Worksheet provides a template for documenting music preferences.

Download the Music Favorites Worksheet
sheet for recording songs for dementia

Use the Music Favorites Worksheet to record notes about your loved one's favorite music.


Music Discovery for Dementia

Asking questions about the listener's music history

The best way to start the discovery process is to simply have a conversation about music. If the person with dementia is communicative, building a music playlist can be a fun activity to do together.  

If the listener has trouble communicating, you may need to recruit the help of friends or family members. Consider past conversations with insights into music preferences.  

Here are some questions to get you started:  

  • What music did you listen to when you were young?  
  • Who was your favorite performer, group, band or orchestra?  
  • Did you sing at religious services? What were your favorite hymns?  
  • What songs did you dance to at your wedding? High school prom?  
  • What type of music did your parents enjoy?  
  • What concerts or live music performances have you attended?  
  • What records or albums did you purchase when you were young?  
  • Did you have a favorite radio station or TV show that played music?  
  • Do you have any vinyl records, cassette tapes, or CDs?  
  • What is your favorite type of music to dance to?  
  • Who is your favorite [insert favorite genre] music singer?

Looking for clues and exploring music

Care partners can also look for clues to help discover meaningful music. If the listener has a music collection, look through old records, tapes, or CDs for inspiration.  

Another effective method for exploring music is to simply listen and observe. Care partners should be aware of signs that a specific song is resonating.  

People with dementia usually react to songs that are particularly comforting or enjoyable. 

Those reactions may include:  

  • Toe-tapping or shoulder swaying
  • Humming or singing
  • Conversation or storytelling
  • Smiles or a look of contentment  


There are a variety of offline and online options for previewing music, including:  

  • Records, Tapes, & CDs - If you have the proper equipment, you can explore the listener's music collection  
  •  YouTube - is a well-known video-sharing website and app. There are recordings of millions of songs. YouTube's music catalog spans a wide variety of popular and cultural music.  
  • Amazon Music - is a streaming music app with a library of million songs. Like YouTube, it’s free to use and there are short advertisements. Unlike YouTube, you must have an Amazon.com account to get started with the service.

Popular Music from the Twentieth Century

Artists and songs for dementia

Our team has developed a comprehensive list of popular artists and songs from past decades. The popular music index can help spark inspiration and help with exploration of songs for dementia.

The music index is organized into the following categories:

JAZZ MUSIC

  • 1940's - Artie Shaw, Dizzy Gilespie, Glenn Miller, Miles Davis, Benny Goodman, etc.
  • 1950's - Herb Alpert, Dave Brubeck, Carla Bley, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, etc.


EASY LISTENING

  • 1940's - Danny Kaye, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Andrew Sisters, etc.
  • 1950's - Frankie Valli, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, Brenda Lee, Burt Bacharach, etc.


ROCK MUSIC

  • 1940's - Bill Haley, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Ivory Joe Hunter, Johnny Otis, etc.
  • 1950's - Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Roy Orbison, etc.


R&B MUSIC

  • 1940's - Fats Domino, Ray Charles, The Ink Spots, B.B. King, The Clovers, LaVern Baker, etc.
  • 1950's - Aretha Franklin, Al Green, James Brown, Smokey Robinson, Etta James, etc.


POP MUSIC

  • 1940's - Danny Kaye, Perry Como, Frank Sinatra, Andy Williams, Pete Seeger, etc.
  • 1950's - Frankie Valli, Johnny Mathis, Paul Anka, Bobby Vinton, Johnnie Ray, etc.


COUNTRY MUSIC

  • 1940's - Bill Monroe, Merle Travis, Ernest Tubb, Eddy Arnold, Patsy Cline, etc.
  • 1950's - Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Jerry Lee Lewis, Glen Campbell, Dolly Parton, etc.


In total, the popular music index has over 400 artists and songs for dementia playlist inspiration.

In addition to the list of popular artists and genres, there are also categories for spiritual, world, classical, broadway, patriotic, and holiday music.

Download and print the music index handout to help your dementia care team start brainstorming. Circle artists and songs of interest. Use those preferences as a starting point to build your loved one's music playlist.

index of artist and songs for dementia

Use the Music Favorites Worksheet to record notes about your loved one's music playlist.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

MICHAEL POTTEIGER

Michael is the co-founder of Generation Connect - a company that develops mobile apps for home care providers. He worked with families that were caring for loved ones with dementia to develop Care Team Connect™ - a mobile app for dementia caregivers.  

Learn more about our approach to help people living with dementia and their caregivers.

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