Harmonies for the Elderly

We offer free music enrichment services to people with Alzheimer's disease


How did Harmonies for the Elderly begin?

 Harmonies for the Elderly (HFTE) started out in 2010 as an Austin, TX-based group of high school and middle school students playing music at local nursing homes. The HFTE founder, a high school student at the time, began a research project to investigate the effects of different types of musical tasks on the cognitive abilities of people with Alzheimer's disease. Based on the results of this study, she began tailoring HFTE music programs specifically to the needs of elderly populations at nursing homes, hoping to improve cognitive function and overall quality of life. After our founder left Austin to study Neuroscience and Music at Vanderbilt University, HFTE began expanding to other areas of the country beyond Texas. Please watch this 2015 TEDx Talk to find out more about HFTE's development and mission.

how can i participate in this service organization?

Please contact us at deepa.rajan@ucsf.edu! We welcome musicians of all ages and skill levels. Our main Harmonies for the Elderly (HFTE) chapters are currently located in Nashville, TN; Austin, TX; Greenwich, CT. Please visit our home page for more information about each chapter. If you do not live near any of these cities, we can still guide you in finding opportunities to serve nursing homes in your local community. We can even help you start your own HFTE chapter where you live! 

WHAT MUSIC Do we play?

We strive to play music from the childhood era of the elderly population we serve because these songs tend to elicit memories and facilitate sing-alongs. Popular songs include "You Are My Sunshine", "This Land is Your Land", "Goodnight Irene", and "Amazing Grace." Songs such as "Swing Low Sweet Chariot" that feature prominent rhythms are also great for improving audience participation, for we encourage everyone to clap along with the beat. Sometimes, we even pass out small percussion instruments like shakers so that the audience members have another way to experience the beat. This is key: we invite the audience to join us in the process of making music for an interactive experience.  We also perform well-known classical pieces such as "Cannon in D Major" by Pachelbel and "Brandenburg Concerto No. 5" by Bach to introduce variety in our programs. Of course, we welcome audience song requests and try to incorporate their suggestions and preferences the next time we visit that particular nursing home.

how does music help the elderly?

Music can improve social and cognitive abilities in people with dementia. We have personally witnessed positive transformations in the behavior of  the nursing home residents for whom we perform. One resident who could not remember our names spontaneously recalled the lyrics to “Edelweiss”. Another person suddenly remembered her father’s quartet from the 1940s. Music evokes childhood memories in a way that few other media can. This is especially relevant for people who have Alzheimer's disease, which ravages the brain but leaves childhood memories relatively untouched until the very end. Audience members may also experience motor benefits. We routinely see wheelchair-bound individuals move around in their seats - swaying from side to side, clapping their hands, or even playing small percussion instruments - along with the beat of the music.

What makes this organization unique?

 There are several organizations across the world that play music at nursing homes, but only a select few of them perform programs tailored towards improving the cognitive presence of people with Alzheimer's disease. We choose songs from the childhood era of our audiences and include a wide variety of genres to encourage audience participation. We have seen that increasing the involvement of the nursing home residents in our music (for example, by facilitating sing-alongs and playing music with prominent rhythms to which people can clap along) improves their states of awareness and their overall sense of  well-being. Interaction is an essential component of every HFTE musical experience. 

can you come play at my nursing home?

If you live in Nashville, Austin, or Greenwich, the answer is yes! Please contact us at deepa.rajan@ucsf.edu to schedule a visit. We are a volunteer-based organization so all of our services are free. If you live outside these areas, we can still direct you to other resources to bring music to your nursing home.