Identifying Music Preferences in Dementia Care

Jona Jeffcoat, MT-BC

Director of Services for Infinity Music Therapy Services

June 16, 2018

There are millions of songs floating around out there. Between jazz, rap, reggae, rock, not to even mention the hybrid genres, it can become overwhelming to identify and utilize client-preferred music in memory care. Many caregivers start with a blanket approach and we end up with playlists filled with Big Band Music, Patriotic Songs, and a handful of the popular songs throughout the years. While this is an excellent starting point, we live in a day and age where music is at our fingertips. Programs like Pandora, Spotify, and even YouTube give us the opportunity to explore music and discover songs we may have completely omitted from a person’s playlist.

As a board-certified music therapist, when I start assessing for musical preferences as part of treatment plan, I start by bringing in music that was popular during the person’s 20’s and 30’s. This music tends to be from the years where they were dating, marrying, growing families, buying their first home, and creating strong foundational memories that the music is tied back to. I then branch out and explore various genres within that time period, growing playlists to use within therapy and recreation based upon their responses.

As dementia progresses, verbal interaction becomes more limited. This does not mean however, we cannot look for individualized responses to determine if the music is preferred or not. We want to avoid the pitfall of taking only a family member’s report of what an individual liked or didn’t like. Music that was seen as “controversial” may not be reported or for some individuals, the only music they may have had access to, was the preferred music of their caregiver.

When trying to build a playlist for a person you are caring for, try the following:

1. Look up the top songs from their 20’s and 30’s.

2. As you play each selection from a variety of genres, look for verbal and non-verbal responses. Does the person smile? Are they clenching their fists? Do their shoulders relax? Do their vocalizations increase or decrease? Does their pacing slow? Do they sing or hum along? Does their breathing slow? Do they turn in your direction or the direction of the music?

3. Notate any observations. For selections that brought a positive response, try the same song at a later date. Did you get a similar reaction? Try this four times and if the response is positive each time, it is a great indication that the song is being enjoyed.

4. Look for related songs and look at the response. Many music programs are great at recommending related tracks.

5. Repeat the same process until you have a playlist of about 20 songs. You can build other playlists later but this is a great start!

After you have a selection of songs, continue to monitor the response during passive and active listening.

Do you have more questions about using music for wellness in eldercare? Contact Jona Jeffcoat, MT-BC at Infinity Music Therapy Services at (860) 518-5557 or for more information or to schedule a free consultation. You can also visit us at