Michael Detmer, professor, music therapist and the study’s lead researcher.
Michael Detmer, professor, music therapist, works with children in the Music Therapy Program.

On a recent weekday at University of Louisville’s Early Learning Campus, two 3-year-old children leaned in close to watch as Claire Bloch pointed out the letter ‘W’ in a picture book.

“Oh you are so smart,” she cooed as they found the letter again on their own and scooped them into a hug. 

With the strum of a guitar, they pulled Bloch to her feet for a dance.

Residents of Sunrise Senior Living have been visiting the Early Learning Campus for a unique, 12-week intergenerational music therapy study.

Board-certified music therapists from UofL’s Music Therapy program lead the children and seniors — many of whom have memory cognition disorders like Alzheimer’s and dementia — through storybook songs, instrument play and movements that are meant to boost learning, interactions and physical activity. 

“We’re trying to bring some self-worth and sense of usefulness back into these adults lives, as well as improve their physical functioning, while simultaneously helping children learn to read and improve literacy skills,” said Michael Detmer, professor, music therapist and the study’s lead researcher. 

Detmer and co-investigator, Dr. Petra Kern, composed much of the music used in the study. Upbeat, silly songs like “check out my moves, I’m dancing with my scarves,” get the children and seniors moving, smiling and learning all at the same time.

“Music ignites them. It energizes them. It gives some structure to the interaction that wouldn’t happen otherwise,” Detmer said.

Books are introduced, too, and the seniors help the children learn to recognize letters and sounds.

“They’re taking the role of a leader, which you don’t see much anymore in their facility because they’re always being cared for, so in that moment they turn into the caregiver,” Detmer said.

The program also allows children the opportunity to spend time with older adults, which is especially meaningful for those who may not have grandparents living nearby.

The study is a collaboration between faculty in the UofL School of Music, Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education and Department of Health and Sports Sciences. It was sponsored, in part, by the UofL Get Healthy Now Wellness Program. 

It’s the first intergenerational music therapy study to measure variables such as interaction, physical function, literacy and self-esteem, said Detmer and Kern.

“I hope we can demonstrate this type of program facilitates a really positive and meaningful interaction between the young and the old, particularly older people with dementia who might not have an opportunity like this otherwise,” Detmer said.

Preliminary results will be presented in June at UofL’s Optimal Aging Conference and in July at the 15th World Congress of Music Therapy in Tsukuba, Japan.

But seniors like Bloch already have their own conclusions about the effects of spending afternoons with children and music.

“Oh it makes you feel good,” she said. “I love the little kids, I’m anxious to see how they grow.”

Another participant wholeheartedly agreed.

“I enjoy it a whole lot,” she said. “I just love the children and how they smile, smile and smile.”

Click here to see more photos from the program.

Niki King
Niki King Jones is positive she has the best job at the University of Louisville, serving the communication needs of the departments of fine arts and theatre, the School of Music, University Libraries and Alumni – all the fun, creative stuff. Before coming to UofL in 2015, Niki held communication positions in both private and nonprofit sectors in Louisville, Ky., including at Heaven Hill Distilleries and the Jewish Community of Louisville. For 10 years prior, she was a reporter at various newspapers across the country, most recently The Courier-Journal. Niki graduated from the University of Memphis with a BA in journalism and has a masters degree in community and leadership development from the University of Kentucky.