Alive Inside: getting the playlist for the music of memory

Inspired by the 2014 documentary “Alive Inside,” Anne Ku tries to create a playlist for elderly residents by sight-reading popular music from different eras, TV themes, broadway, movies, and the charts.


The 78-minute documentary “Alive Inside” is a fascinating account of the effect of familiar music on eliciting memory in the elderly, awakening them from their otherwise passive state of being. Released in 2014, the film “follows social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit organization Music & Memory, as he fights against a broken healthcare system to demonstrate music’s ability to combat memory loss and restore a deep sense of self to those suffering from it.”

The movie will be screened (for free viewing) on July 22nd in Honolulu, at the Intergenerational Action on a Global Scale Conference, hosted by Generations United, International Consortium of Intergenerational Programs (ICIP), Seagull Schools, United Nations – Hawaii, and Japan NGO Council on Aging.

As I couldn’t wait for it, I watched it on Netflix streaming. I couldn’t help but recall what it’s like to select music to perform for elderly audiences when my piano guitar duo gave concerts on a regular basis in the Netherlands.

How does one know which songs will trigger long forgotten memory? Surely the most popular tunes in their youth would do it. But when? Which period? Teenage years? Which language and which country? Are we safe with classical music? Broadway hits? Television themes?  Soundtrack from movies released when they were young adults?

These were the questions going through my head as Dan Cohen, founder of the non-profit Music & Memory, puts a headphone on an elderly patient in a nursing home and then gets the person to press the tiny iPod device. Like magic, the music draws out a smile. The body starts to move. Different expressions surface. The person becomes alive.

Is it possible to sightread music from the different eras and hit the jackpot? Or can the listeners generate their own playlists? Would they remember the titles?

On a whim, I decided to sight-read the stack of old sheet music given to me recently by a retired opera singer. After an early dinner, the elderly residents at the venue where I’ve been giving free themed concerts the last few years soon filled up the reception area. I played a variety of classical music, including Chopin’s Nocturnes and Waltzes and Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.”

Eventually, an eighty-eight year old Japanese lady said, “Play us what we know.”

Luckily there was a book of American patriotic songs. Recognition was instant as they sang to “America the Beautiful”, “Yankee Doodle” and “America – My Country Tis of Thee.”

A white-haired lady came to me and said,”I love all the songs to the fifties.”

“You mean including the fifties?”

“No,” she clarified. “I love songs from the war era.”

When I was leaving, the eighty-eight year old Japanese lady insisted on giving me a five-dollar tip and her wrapped-up dinner roll and butter. I was indeed hungry after playing for two hours.

Clearly, instrumental music and piano solos were not effective as songs they could sing along to. The next day, I visited two local public libraries and checked out ten books of popular music and award-winning songs.


I started with the contemporary classic love songs while the residents were finishing dinner in the other room. I ran through the book of best TV songs. I knew many of them from my childhood. I then went through the Grammy Awards. Eventually I regressed in time: from the popular music of the 50s to the 40s to the 30s.

To my surprise, these books did not churn out songs they knew. Just because they were categorized in the right era didn’t mean the residents knew them.

Meanwhile, instinctively I knew when I struck gold. They started humming the songs that I also knew and love:

  • As Time Goes By
  • Somewhere Over the Rainbow
  • Blueberry Hill
  • Que Sera Sera
  • Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
  • Somewhere My Love, Lara’s Theme from Dr Zhivago
  • Moon River
  • Tea for Two
  • Stand By Me
  • Lean On Me

How does Dan Cohen from “Alive Inside” create his playlists? Trial and error? Or simply from a list of all-time favorites familiar and loved by people of all generations?

Author: BLOGmaiden

As one of the earliest bloggers (since 1999), I enjoy meeting people who embrace "out-of-the-box" thinking and fear not the unknown. I believe in collaboration for sustainability because it increases stakeholder value.

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