Determining Music Preferences – The First Step in Caregiving Through Music

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I’ve been asked several times recently to put together a list of tips for introducing music in a professional caregiving relationship. It turns out I could write a book on that subject. (And I probably will – stay tuned!) More posts will come in the future, but we should start at the beginning – determining your senior’s music preferences.

Why is this such an important first step? Decades of music therapy research have demonstrated that music preference is a determining factor in the outcome of many therapeutic interventions. What music is best for promoting physical relaxation? Client-preferred music. What music is best for engaging clients with end-stage dementia? Client-preferred music. What music is best for decreasing agitated behaviors among clients with dementia? Client-preferred music. While there are times when unfamiliar or non-preferred music is appropriate in a music therapy clinical situation, client-preferred music is usually the starting point in clinical music therapy. Client-preferred music is also the best starting point for caregiving through music.

So, how do you determine what music your client prefers?

  1. Ask the senior what kind of music they like. Okay, you probably already thought of this, but sometimes the easiest tips to follow are also the easiest to forget. Still, this can be a surprisingly difficult question to answer for some of us.
  2. Ask the family members what they know about the senior’s musical history and preferences. They might not know, or they might have a slightly skewed knowledge of their loved one’s preferences (did you tell your kids about what happened at Woodstock?), but talking to the family will help in any case. Just don’t stop there!
  3. Check out the senior’s music collection (with permission, of course). This will give you insight into music they liked at one time, even if they don’t remember it specifically now.
  4. Think in terms of popularity over the years. Some research indicates that the popular music from our young adult years remains our favorite in our later years, too. So, figure out what was popular when your senior was is their 20s, and this will give you a starting point for finding preferred music by listening to a range of recordings. Speaking of which…
  5. Listen to a wide selection of recordings. I always try music from a few different genres and decades with the folks I work with, unless they specifically tell me that they dislike a particular style. I’ve had people say they like church music who also really respond to rock ‘n roll, and vice versa.
  6. Watch for non-verbal communication. Some senior can’t say what kind of music they like, and others will say they like something even though they look uncomfortable or start crying.
  7. Write down key songs – the recordings someone always enjoys or the songs they sing most often. I keep a running list for my clients so I know which songs to pull out when I want to grab their attention, even as we keep trying new songs.

As you get a sense of what music your senior client prefers, you’ll know better how to implement some other caregiving-through-music strategies.

Still, don’t forget that music preferences aren’t all that is important! People prefer different kinds of music for different reasons, and you can’t assume they’ll like a particular song or artist because of their age or cultural background. What’s more important is that you pay close attention to your senior’s responses to different kinds of music and build a more nuanced understanding of what they prefer.

Have you ever been surprised by a client’s music choices? What strategies do you have for figuring out clients’ preferences?

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6 thoughts on “Determining Music Preferences – The First Step in Caregiving Through Music

  1. Anne Vitort says:

    Great post! This is so important and is often overlooked by caregivers who like to sing their own preferred songs.

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