Exploring Music's Complexities

Music Therapies in Nursing Homes

The Benefits of Individual Music Therapy

Kristin S. Padilla, RN, BSN, RNC


If you’ve worked or visited a nursing home, you’ve most likely witnessed at least one resident exhibiting agitated behavior, ranging from pacing to yelling. This is a fairly common and widespread problem, especially in residents with dementia, usually stemming from anxiety. This anxiety and agitation adversely affects the health of the patient and increases stress levels for everyone, including staff caregivers and family members.

It is common to treat agitated residents with medication to calm the behavior, and while this may be effective in treating the behavior, it does not necessarily treat the underlying cause. Music is often central in nursing home programs but more and more, personalized alternative calming methods such as individual music therapy sessions are being used in nursing homes for residents to help alleviate underlying issues such as anxiety and depression, thus reducing agitated behaviors.

“Part of the power of music lies in its ability to reflect and then bring change in a person’s state, moment to moment. In order to be responsive to people in this way, music therapy relies heavily on improvisation. Music therapists not only improvise music with people, but also enable them to improvise music themselves. In this way music therapy is always a shared act, whether between two people or in a large group.” There have been many studies around the world that have shown the benefit of music therapy in nursing home patients, especially in those patients that exhibit agitation and anxiety.

One example of the success of individualized music therapy sessions is Rose, a resident at Chalfont Lodge Care Centere in Buckinghamshire, UK. She was a resident with dementia and was often confused and tearful. As she was not benefitting from activities provided in the home, she was referred for individual music therapy sessions. Before starting, her therapist, Stuart Wood, noted that she had been humming “Hey Jude” by the Beatles and her therapy began with singing this and other known tunes…albeit slow and disconnected. As her therapy continued, she began moving toward improvising and creating her own songs, growing in complexity and clarity as the sessions continued. She demonstrated increased independence and a decrease in confusion and tearfulness.

She described what music did for her by saying, “I like what I sing because it makes me feel something is coming out. The music comes into me, then music comes out.”

In study after study, the benefits of individual music therapy, ranging from playing a resident’s favorite music, to singing, to calming music paired with hand massage for residents in nursing homes with dementia seems clear. Music provides an element calm and stability for these patients, decreasing anxiety and agitated behavior.

“Residents who have lost understanding or expression can find themselves eloquent, witty and authoritative again. This is a vital contributing factor in the maintenance of health and quality of life.


Wood S. Music therapy: striking a chord with care home residents. Nursing Older People [serial online]. October 2004;16(7):24-26. Available from: CINAHL Plus with Full Text, Ipswich, MA. Accessed October 7, 2010.

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