The Music & Memory Film Project:
Documenting Music & Dementia through Film

An Applied Research Project about Neurodiversity, Creative Aging, and Ethnomusicological Filmmaking

An Applied Research Project about Neurodiversity, Creative Aging, and Ethnomusicological Filmmaking

This research project sits at the crossroads of applied ethnomusicology, experiential ethnography through film, and studies of neurodiversity and creative aging. Now in its third year, I have carried out this research in conjunction with service learning undergraduate courses that I designed and taught in Maine and Indiana. In my course "Music and Memory: Studying Music and Dementia through Film," my students and I work to help make personalized iPod playlists for residents with dementia at continuing care centers, documenting these experiences through sensory approaches to filmed ethnography.

Over the course of a given semester students work in pairs with individuals in assisted living facilities or adult day programs designed for older adults living with different kinds of dementia. Students visit facilities 6-8 times over the course of a given semester and spend their afternoons learning about the musical life story of participants. This process involves spending time with, and interviewing older adults, their families and their professional and personal support networks. As students get to know their participants, they gradually build a playlist of 20-50 songs that ultimately is downloaded on an iPod for that individual's personal use. Finally, the individual, their family and their professional care partners learn how music can be used both as an activity, and also as an intervention to promote wellness depending on the need of each individual. For some, this may involve anxiety, others insomnia, others depression, and for others, music provides a vehicle to connect with family, friends, and great memories. 

Throughout the process described above, students work in pairs to produce a short filmed experiential ethnography of their time together with each participant. Sometimes students choose to combine their films into larger pieces, leading to slightly longer films. I chose this medium not only because it allows students to produce films for public advocacy and education, but also because I believe methodologies of experiential ethnography through film allow students to focus on the ethnographic encounter, highlighting a person-centered, and not diagnosis-centered approach to understanding dementia. The films not only document the experiences of reconnecting individuals to the music they most love, but also document the way this research facilitates meaningful intergenerational relationships between college students, older adults, and their families. Our hope is that these short ethnographic films, shared here and through various public channels, can be used to help raise awareness about the transformative power of music as a vehicle for health and wellness, to de-stigmatize public understandings of dementia and to advocate for the importance of initiatives that promote creative aging and intergenerational community building.

We also are actively working to use these films, and a series of grants and fundraising, to encourage other facilities to adopt creative aging initiatives. In my course, we work with facilities that are certified by the nationwide Non-Profit Organization Music and Memory.

For further comments and questions, or to inquire about public or campus lectures or film screenings, please contact me at