The conversations of life

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.

A therapist leads a participant through the Music & Memory program. Credit: Music & 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


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.

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