Caroline Beson, LPMT, MT-BC Small Steps Music Therapist
The more fun we can have together, the stronger our relationship.
If your first attempt doesn’t spark the connection you want, try again with a different song.
I can’t tell you how often my parents would tell me as a teen: “Caroline, you have to turn this off. I don’t like this music and it is driving me nuts.” I came to realize that my time with them was too brief to try to persuade them, and there was plenty of music for us to listen to that we both enjoyed. Today I don’t waste time: I play the music I know we both want to hear. My mom likes James Taylor and my Dad likes a lot of classic rock. Since I have started taking more interest in hearing the music they like (and sometimes it’s new music- wow, everybody and their mom loves Lake Street Dive, right?!), I’ve noticed that we seem to communicate with more positivity and I feel more connected to them. It’s true that when connecting with anyone through music, music for which you have a mutual admiration is the ideal choice. The reason for this is simple: we feel much more pleasure when we listen to music that we like. And the more fun we can have together, the stronger our relationship.
This approach works well for me because my parents are adults who can tell me about their likes and dislikes. I was always interested in music, so I payed attention when they discussed music. I learned that my dad likes a couple songs that my mom dislikes, and vice versa; and that certain songs have rich meaning for them as a couple. It's so easy for me to know what music to choose to connect with my parents.
But what about an aging parent who struggles to communicate? What about connecting with an estranged parent? What about a parent who is a widow or widower who finds that the songs that once brought comfort and happiness now bring sorrow and grief? These situations provide additional challenges. If you find yourself saying, “I truly don't know my parent’s taste in music!” you aren't alone. It's likely not information you needed to know. (When was the last time you filled out a questionnaire that asked about your own favorite song? Probably sometime in grade school.)
You may also think you know your parent’s preferences in music, and be surprised to learn that you are dead wrong… You may arrive at a music therapy session in a nursing home expecting to hear your mom’s favorite hymns because you told the music therapist what a faithful churchgoer she was, only to find that Mom singing every word to Elvis Presley’s “Hound Dog,” with an energy you have not seen in decades.
A person’s preferences in music can be tricky to uncover. When someone says, “my favorite song is, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, it might be assumed that their preference is with old crooners and divas. This song was popularly sung in a soulful ballad style by The Platters. But this song has been performed in a number of styles by a number of artists. Plus, people often have a favorite song that is meaningful because it was a favorite of someone close to them, not because it is your favorite style of music in general. Knowing this, how can we begin to choose the music we listen to with our aging parents? I’ll offer my best tips here.
Choose the music that is meaningful to your relationship. My mom used to sing a lullabye to me as a child, and although it isn’t an especially important song, it does take me back to times of comfort and connection. I’m sure it would provide the same feeling for her. Try to choose a song that meant something to both you and your parent. This might be a favorite jingle, a song that made you laugh together, a song that invokes a special holiday, or even a lullabye that reinforces the parent-child relationship.
Choose the music that your parent likely heard as a teen and young adult. For the most part, people enjoy the songs of their youth, when they were the young consumers of new music. Your parent might have attended a concert that was meaningful to them, or heard a song on the radio that they enjoyed, or had a great time at a school or community dance.
Choose music that is authentic to who they are: I have always found that bluegrass and folk music is part of my upbringing. Consider the kinds of places your parent lived during their life: Did they enjoy the big city life? They might be fans of music for dancing- swing, big band, or ballroom styles. Did they attend square dances regularly? Country, folk, and bluegrass are common interests here in the Southeast. These can sometimes be “picked up” by folks who relocate here as adults as well.
Choose music that matches the energy level you want to have in your relationship. Unless your parent needs help with relaxation or sleep, there is no need to choose the slowest song you can find! If you want to do a little dancing together, you can move at half-speed, or simply dance with your hands- clasp hands and sway, seated or standing. The faster tempo might be a great energizer for your parent, and help you keep the conversation going.
Lastly, experiment and learn from your time together. If your first attempt doesn’t spark the connection you want, try again with a different song. You can compile a list of those songs that do seem to engage your parent, and create your own “mixtape” over time.
For some, this process will be an easy way to reconnect musically with aging parents. For others, this may seem nearly impossible. A difficult relationship can create difficulties that may not be easily reconciled. Consulting a music therapist is a great next step. Music therapists are trained to guide music experiences in situations of strained relationships. Ask any care organizations your parent may use (nursing home, in-home care, senior center, hospice, etc.) if they offer music therapy services, or contact Small Steps Music, LLC for more information on services.