12 Songs Every Music Therapist Should Know

by Rachel on March 23, 2011

12 Songs Every Music Therapist Should Know

We all know that the contents of our repertoire depend on the populations with which we work. But there are just some songs that transcend populations, and can be used in almost any setting — whether in a school, private practice, nursing facility, hospice care, or otherwise.

Your list might look different from mine, but based on my experience, here are the 12 songs that I think can be used with just about any music therapy client, regardless of age, diagnosis, or ability.

  1. “American Pie” – This song is obviously a classic, and I don’t know anyone who doesn’t like singing along to the chorus.  It might not be your first pick for a piggybacked children’s goodbye song, but it was mine :)
  2. “Amazing Grace” – It’s most often associated with seniors and hospice patients, though everyone should have a few hymns in their collection.
  3. “Blue Suede Shoes” – My students dig this tune, even though most of them have no clue who Elvis Presley is!  Older clients, of course, are familiar with both him and the song.
  4. “Blue Skies” – I use this as a weather song sometimes, or to give everyone a mood lift.  It has always been one of my favorite songs.
  5. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” – This one is great for discussing positive feelings, and I use it often as the basis of a songwriting activity.
  6. “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” – Also known as “In the Jungle” or “Wimoweh”, I adapted it for young children and sing the original version on a regular basis.
  7. “Lean on Me” – It’s all about knowing there are people to support you, and that’s applicable to everyone.  Plus, it’s repetitive and easy to sing.
  8. “Ob-La-Di” – Did you know that this song makes an excellent hello song?  I rewrote the words a few years ago, and use it all the time.  Hmm, maybe it will appear in a future Sunday Singalong video!
  9. “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – I think a lot of people have an emotional connection to this song.  It’s interesting to hear what’s “over the rainbow” for clients who are verbal and capable of abstract thinking.
  10. “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” – Baseball is America’s pastime, right?  It’s fun to bring out this song every spring and hear about everyone’s favorite teams.
  11. “This Little Light of Mine” – I learned this song for my internship interview and have been singing it ever since.  As a movement song, as an inspirational song, and however else I feel like adapting it on a given day.
  12. “You Are My Sunshine” – A traditional song that almost everyone knows.  It’s easy to adapt for just about any client and setting.

Now that I’ve listed 12 songs, I’m realizing that I really could go on and on.  But I want to hear from you: what’s on your list of essential songs for every music therapist, no matter the setting and population?

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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat Fulton March 23, 2011 at 9:47 am

Great list! I’ll add God Bless America to the mix for those patriotic peeps =) But you’re right. There are a million more to add… Looking forward to seeing more songs listed here!


Rachel March 23, 2011 at 10:35 am

Yes, Kat! Thanks for adding a patriotic song – definitely needed on the list!


Tara McConnell March 23, 2011 at 11:19 am

Great list! My list also includes “Stand By Me”, “Let It Be” and “You’ve Got A Friend”…oh so many more…


Rachel March 23, 2011 at 11:26 am

Tara – wow, we must really be on the same wavelength, because all three of those songs were on the original long list that I had to pare down for the post. Awesome :D


Jess Kaps February 26, 2015 at 1:03 pm

I agree with “Stand By Me” for certain! I use this one in my regular rotation, though “Lean on Me” is a close second. I would add a pop song like Bruno Mars “Just the Way You Are” to my personal list (adapted, which I often use as a goodbye song) because it has such a positive message, is certainly familiar to most kids and many adults and almost everyone can take something away from it.

I might also add “Happy” by Pharrell–I mean, come on, who doesn’t like this song!?

Love the “American Pie” & “Blue Skies” ideas… I hadn’t thought of those! The rest match my mental list perfectly! I use pretty much all of those songs at LEAST a few times per week, with the different groups I have. Nice work as usual, Rachel. : )


Rachel February 27, 2015 at 11:24 am

Thanks Jess! I LOVE that Bruno Mars song — good call! And of course, “Happy” has had plenty of plays in my rotation since it came out :) Check your email for the Ob-La-Di hello song!


Groovygarfoose March 23, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I would add the Mexican Hat Dance too…I know, no lyrics, but a great call/response song that is easy to adapt all kinds of lyrics. I echo Tara and Kat on their standards too. Great list and additions. I would be interested in seeing your FULL list Rachel. Would you share?? :)


Rachel March 23, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Good one, Bonnie! Yes, I’d love to share my full list – perhaps it will be a L&L Plus goodie :)


Melissa Kidd March 23, 2011 at 3:59 pm

How about “Happy Birthday?” Or is that song a given that everyone knows how to play it?


Rachel March 23, 2011 at 4:03 pm

You’re absolutely right, Melissa! It may or may not be a given. I will say that since I work at a school, I sing this at least a few times a week!


Anne Vitort March 23, 2011 at 6:21 pm

How about the spiritual “Over My Head, There’s Music in the Air”? It’s very adaptable to all kinds of movement activities — parachute, shakers, scarves —


JoAnn Jordan March 24, 2011 at 9:44 am

I imagine we could easily create a top 100 songs here. “She’ll Be Coming ‘Round the Mountain” is one I use in a variety of ways.


Jesse March 24, 2011 at 11:56 am

I’d definitely add If I Had A Hammer, Hey Jude, and Take Me Home Country Roads.


Nicole Sellers October 26, 2011 at 3:48 pm

Rachel, I love to use “somewhere over the rainbow” for all sorts of populations. Its great as an intro to colors with little ones or with elderly clients in a nursing home setting.


Eliana Kissner August 22, 2012 at 9:04 am


What an amazingly informative and generous website you have! Thank you so much! I am thinking about a career in music therapy, and I find your posts so helpful.

All the best.


Risa March 19, 2013 at 2:10 pm

like your list. it will come in had for school. want to ask you some music therapy research questions; is that all right?
Thanks for the insight.


Matt Dailey August 3, 2014 at 4:57 pm

I’d be really interested to see the rewritten lyrics to Ob-La-Di. I’m seeing Paul McCartney in October and I want to tie in a few beatles lessons for my older elementary students. Would you be willing to share?


Rachel August 5, 2014 at 9:01 pm

Hi Matt – check your email! :)


Mara February 9, 2015 at 7:53 pm

Hey! I’m also interested in the lyrics for Obladi Oblada. Could you please send me those? Thanks a lot!


Rachel February 9, 2015 at 8:03 pm

Mara – sent!


Jess Kaps February 26, 2015 at 1:11 pm

I might add a comment to this…. I am also interested in how you adapted Ob-la-di Ob-la-da, if it is not too much to ask!


Marla March 5, 2015 at 11:16 am

“My Blue Heaven” is a sweet song that’s well received when our ukulele group plays for rest home residents. If you’re interested, the songs we use are posted (with ukulele chords) here: https://bozemanukes.wordpress.com/oldies-sing-alongs-at-rest-home/


Rachel March 5, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Thanks for sharing this, Marla!


Brandy April 11, 2015 at 9:58 pm

Ob-La-Di lyrics? I’m prepping my concerts for next year and would love to see them! I was so happy to find this. Thanks for sharing!


Rachel April 12, 2015 at 10:34 am

Hi Brandy! Check your email :)


Todd June 2, 2015 at 11:52 am

Stand By Me. Motown in general. The basic chord structures are usually pretty easy to play and thet are great memory emoters. Any suggestions specifically for alzheimers/dementia? Thanks!


Todd June 2, 2015 at 11:55 am

FYI- Any popular song lyrics and guitar tabs are available for free on many websites (“free song lyrics/guitar tabs” and the like). Play on


Sara June 4, 2015 at 7:00 pm

Hi All! I am surprised that these following ditties haven’t been mentioned? : This Land is Your Land, Yellow Submarine, When the Saints Go Marching In, Singing in the Rain, and many more! Rachel, could I also please have the re-write to Obla-di Obla-da?


Erin June 4, 2015 at 10:03 pm

Sunshine on my Shoulders, How Great Thou Art, Side By Side


Jim June 24, 2015 at 1:55 pm

I like bluegrass music….guitar/vocals and I play banjo instrumentals…….I do a few songs listed above, especially hymns/ bluegrass gospel tunes.
Any advice/suggestions would be appreciated. I got into this effort with my then 90 year old mother who had advancing dementia about five years ago…..ithe above music activities wer a great communications tool and allowed us fun times……especially when she would sing along (on pitch!!) and could follow the logic of verse to chorus to verse from a little book. It is a marvelous activity when you’re really stumped for a way to pleasantly share your time with a dear one limited in their communication skills.


Warren Jayne July 1, 2015 at 8:44 am

As part of my musical experience, I’ve played for residents of Memory Care homes. Several songs that seem to always get a pleasing, positive reaction are “Take the A Train, Route 66, Fly Me To The Moon and Walkin’ My Baby Back Home”. I suspect that part of the appeal of the first three is that they all share that moderate Swing beat that is easy to follow.


Kim July 12, 2015 at 3:43 pm

I’m working at a rehab center now. Any good songs for older population? Love to see your ob lol do lyrics too. Thanks.


Rachel July 16, 2015 at 7:09 am

Hi Kim! I just tried emailing you the lyrics, but it came back as undeliverable. Let me know if you have a different email address I can try. Also, for resources for the older population, I would recommend checking out Rachelle Norman’s site, Soundscape Music Therapy (http://soundscapemusictherapy.com/posts/).


Debbie August 2, 2015 at 6:31 pm

Jesus Loves Me, Unforgettable, It Had to be You, New York , New York, are all songs I have success with at our SNF. As newer generations come in, we will have to tweak the list


Debbie August 2, 2015 at 6:32 pm

My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean was a new one we sang last week, almost everyone sang this one.


Rachel August 3, 2015 at 10:29 pm

Great additions to the list! And I agree, it will need to be tweaked as time goes on.


Bobby November 3, 2015 at 12:51 pm

Stand by me, City of New Orleans, Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys, Bobby McGee, Under the Boardwalk.

Even at a Hospice, people don’t always want to hear sad mournful songs. If I am with a guitar player I like to play mandolin. Cheerie sounding.

Kind, regards.


Mike Cottam December 4, 2015 at 10:37 pm

Very cool, you had a couple I didn’t have. Another guy and myself started taking the Lords Supper to a few of our members in a retirement home. One of which is in the dementia ward. One day we sang a song and saw the reaction of several of the folks and now we have a simple ministry of song and good news. At first we started with just christian songs but now we are incorporating a few that everyone knows. It is such a blessing to see these folks light up even if its for a short period of time. Thank you for your ministry and may God continue to bless you for all you do, Mike


Amanda Rissler January 25, 2016 at 6:22 pm

I love this list – it gave a good idea of what I should be learning as a student :) Can I see your adapted lyrcis for Ob La Di? I’m in the process of rewriting it as a Hello song for tomorrow’s session. Thanks!


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