Updated: May 14, 2021
Music and memory are inextricably linked- just as our favorite films have iconic soundtracks, so do many of us have a soundtrack to the recollection of our own lives.
...many of us have a soundtrack to the recollection of our own lives.
Music can serve as an energizer, a conversation starter, a love letter, or a safe space to let our hair down and cry. In working with older adults as a music therapist, in both individual and group settings, I have seen the power of music to bring back speech that was thought lost, increase engagement and connection, and bring a smile to faces that are frequently flat.
While the music I use changes from week to week, I have a solid repertoire of songs that I use over and over due to their efficacy and connection to my clients. While my list is influenced by my geographical area (working in the South, Appalachia in particular, I use more country and bluegrass than some other music therapists), I try to choose songs that are simple, familiar, and evocative.
Top 10 Songs Used With Older Adults
1. When the Saints Go Marching In
Too much sitting without movement can be a big risk for older people, particularly those that use wheelchairs, or experience activity intolerance. The exciting syncopation of this classic Dixieland tune, along with the repeated impetus to “march” in place make “When the Saints Go Marching In” a go-to to get some movement and energy going with a group. If we’re feeling especially boisterous, I might pass out hand drums or tambourines to take things up a notch and include upper-body motion as well as lower-body.
2. Button Up Your Overcoat
This clever tune from the Roaring Twenties provides opportunities both for laughs (“When you sass a traffic cop, use diplomacy”) and reminiscence discussion about mother’s advice for cold weather, secrets to longevity, and old folk remedies. If I’m working with a group that’s less talkative, I might encourage them to join me in motions that reflect the lyrics to the song, for example, wrapping our arms around ourselves to keep away the cold.
3. Coal Miner’s Daughter
Loretta Lynn’s bare-bones portrayal of her childhood resonates with a lot of older folks, especially those that grew up in the country, without the amenities we “millennials” take for granted. The rich imagery of Lynn’s lyrics often sparks memories for my clients- one man I worked with informed me that his father worked at the Van Leer Coal Mine with Loretta’s dad!
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4. I’ve Got Rhythm
George Gershwin is one of the quintessential American Songwriters, whose music has reached across the generations. The familiarity of this song makes it a great choice for introducing percussion instruments, like drums or rhythm sticks. I find that non-musicians are sometimes hesitant to play a drum, but with everyone singing together, they find enough encouragement to give it a try. The positive lyrics and upbeat swing of “I’ve Got Rhythm” make it a great energizer at the beginning of a session.
5. Kansas City
Blues songs make great songwriting opportunities, because the AAB rhyme structure is simple, predictable, and easily modified, Mad-Libs style. After singing the chorus together, I’ll ask group members to tell me where they would go, if they could visit anywhere. Sometimes the answers are whimsical, like Hawaii, or Hollywood, and other times we find out a little about someone’s hometown. The simplicity of the writing allows everyone to contribute, and it’s easy to offer a binary choice of destinations to someone who’s having a harder time coming up with an answer.
6. Country Roads
I often joke that John Denver was the only thing my parents ever agreed on, and that’s why I have such a fondness for him. This song is interesting in that it isn’t a song from what we consider the “formative years” (adolescence to early adulthood) of most older people, and yet I’ve yet to meet a person who didn’t know it. While the lyrics are exceptionally appropriate in Virginia (I maintain that Denver was referring to “western VA”, not WVA, if you check the geographical references), I’ve had as much success with rousing sing-alongs and reminiscence discussions in North Carolina and Georgia as well.
7. Moon River
3/4 time is especially effective in increasing relaxation, with the pulse of the downbeat matching the sway of waves on the ocean, or the feel of gliding effortlessly across the dance floor. This song is equally useful in the 1:1 setting, where I might start at a faster tempo to match someone’s breathing, and gradually slow down as they become more relaxed, or with a group, where I might instruct everyone to close their eyes and imagine their favorite place.
8. Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’
Gratitude and positive thinking have been shown to increase happiness and reduce some symptoms of depression. The lyrics to this song from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma express joy in the simple things, and serve as a great jumping off point to discussing the positive aspects of life. It’s also a great segue into a Movie Soundtrack sing-a-long, and a hallmark of the golden age of Broadway musicals.
9. Sentimental Journey
The dreamy feel of this jazz standard makes it easy to think fondly of home. While you can still catch the Amtrak on the east coast, train travel is not nearly so common as it once was, and it’s always interesting to hear stories from my clients of multiple day train journeys. So much of our last years involves taking those sentimental journeys, reflecting on our lives and putting together the narrative of our own voyage from the cradle to the grave. The lovely thing about this song is it invites both literal and metaphorical discussions about what it means to journey home.
10. You Are My Sunshine
Jimmie Davis will always be remembered for this song over his tenure as governor of Louisiana (sorry, Tim Kaine, your harmonica skills just don’t compare). This is a tune our grandchildren’s grandchildren will probably still know, and sing to their own little ones. While the song’s lyrics are more romantic on the surface, “you’ll never know dear, how much I love you,” often brings to mind the sacrifice and devotion of parenthood. This is a song that inspires tears and smiles. Even the quietest folks can’t help but sing aloud, so indelible is this song in the American memory.
I could probably give you a list of 100 songs, but I think that’s a good stopping point. (I love working with older people because our musical preferences overlap 100%. It’s nice when having a dorky childhood pays off in the long run!)
Maybe you already know and love these tunes, or perhaps you’ve discovered a couple to add to your playlist.
Music is one of the closest things we have
to time travel-
Music is one of the closest things we have to time travel- it can take us just about anywhere in the recesses of memory, and has the power to bring back so much that was thought lost, from smiles, to words, to stories.
I am so honored and privileged to get to share songs with my elders, and so grateful for the wisdom they give me in return.
Catherine Backus, MT-BC
Would an older adult in your life benefit from music?
Are they depressed, lonely, in pain, or confused from the effects of dementia?
Music can help!
Discover 10 ways to use music to improve quality of life and decrease stress with our FREE eBook!
DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE COPY <----HERE and start using music today as a tool for less stressful days!
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