The key to reaching people with dementia? Through their playlist

We already know listening to music seems to relax people with dementia. Now we know why. A US study has found listening to familiar songs activates whole areas of the brain, particularly those related to attention, language and visual memory. 

To work this out, the researchers helped participants choose meaningful songs and trained the person and their carer to use a portable media player loaded with the songs. 

An MRI was then used to scan participants’ brains while they listened to 20-second clips of music versus silence. Listening to the personal soundtrack activated different parts of the brain – and helped them better communicate with each other. 

It backs up previous research that shows personalised music programs – such as the American ‘Music & Memory’ program which came to Australia in 2016 and now is being used in over 100 hospitals and aged care homes – can improve the mood of people with dementia. 

Tapping into musical memories 

So how can you create a playlist for yourself or a family member? 

Cherry Hense, music therapist and researcher at University of Melbourne gave the ABC this advice: 

  • Find songs they listened to during their teens and early 20s
  • Ask about experiences — did they go to church regularly and listen to hymns or love musical theatre?
  • Search for songs from that genre that would have been current during their youth
  • Monitor their reactions to the playlist — are they tapping their feet, singing?
  • Adjust the playlist if it is not having the desired effect

It’s not a cure – but she says it can help make the symptoms such as anxiety and agitation more manageable and give the person a better quality of life. 

Isn’t that the most important thing? 

National Dementia Helpline 1800 100 500 

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A special thanks to our contributors

Antonia Norris

Researcher and Contributor

Antonia has led the operations and growth of the and within the DCM Group in Australia and New Zealand for several years. This has included the research and creation agedcare101 in 2016, the creation of the DCM Institute and Te Ara Institute, the joint contribution of Care & Living with Mercer (CaLM) and the TV series, The Best 30 Years, screened on NINE nationally.



Caroline has a wealth of experience writing within the retirement and aged care sector and is a contributing journalist for the and agedcare101 blog and accompanying newsletters.

Ian Horswill


Ian is a journalist, writer and sub-editor for the aged care sector, working at The DCM Group. He writes for The Weekly Source, agedcare101, and the DCM Institute fortnightly newsletter Friday. Ian is in daily contact with CEOs of retirement living, land lease and the aged care operations and makes a new contact every week. He investigates media releases, LinkedIn and Facebook for a good source for ideas for stories.

Lauren Broomham

Retirement and Aged Care Journalist

Lauren is a journalist for, agedcare101 and The Donaldson Sisters. Growing up in a big family in small town communities, she has always had a love for the written word, joining her local library at the age of six months. With over eight years' experience in writing and editing, she is a keen follower of news and current affairs with a nose for a good story.

Jill Donaldson


Jill has been practicing as a clinical physiotherapist for 30 years. For the last 13 years she has worked solely in the Aged Care sector in more than 50 metropolitan and regional facilities. Jill has also toured care facilities in the US and Africa and is a passionate advocate for both the residents in aged care and the staff who care for them. She researches and writes for DCM Media.

Chris Baynes

DCM Media, agedcare101

Chris has been a journalist and publisher in the retirement village and aged care sectors for 11 years. He has visited over 250 retirement villages and 50 aged care facilities both within Australia and internationally. Chris is a regular speaker at industry conferences plus is a frequent radio commentator.

Annie Donaldson

Nurse and Carer

Annie has a long career in both nursing and the media. She has planned and co-ordinated the medical support from both international TV productions and major stadium events. In recent years she has been a primary family carer plus involved in structured carer support.