Individual Music Therapy for Agitation in Dementia: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Trial

Individual Music Therapy for Agitation in Dementia: An Exploratory Randomized Controlled Trial

Caregivers and nursing home employees often report increased burnout when working with individuals with dementia who are exhibiting signs of agitation. Unfortunately, agitation is a very prevalent symptom in patients with this diagnosis. Agitation can present as aggressive, abusive, and inappropriate behaviors. Increased agitation levels also cause increased distress in these individuals, and in turn, increase the level of medications they receive. Constantly feeling agitated can also lead to lower quality of life. That is where music therapy can play a key role in the treatment for individuals with dementia who experience this difficult symptom.

A contrasting thought regarding agitation is that this agitation occurs as a reaction to unmet needs. A music therapist can help patients with dementia communicate their needs and cope with their environment. Music therapy literature dictates that using music as a tool to treat agitation can bypass symptoms of agitation and even decrease agitation levels overall in persons with dementia. Research also indicates that the presence of music can increase “compliance” in an individual with dementia when a caregiver is attempting to work with them on activities of daily living. To go further, the presence of live music (i.e., caregivers actively singing) have shown a further increase in these positive behaviors when compared to pre-recorded music.

In a study conducted by researchers in Denmark and Norway, participants were split into two groups and either received standard care or music therapy (MT group). The goal of the study was to show the effects of individual music therapy sessions on nursing home residents with dementia. Music therapy was offered to those in the MT group six times and included interventions such as singing, dancing, improvising. These daily sessions aimed to foster self-expression and engagement. The results of this study showed the agitation was increased during standard care and was decreased during music therapy. The study was published in the Aging and Mental Health and featured a small case example where a patient who received music therapy was noted to laugh and appear happy after music therapy and whose carers reported a decrease in agitation by the end of her music therapy sessions.


Ridder, H. M., Stige, B., Qvale, L. G., & Gold, C. (2013). Individual music therapy for agitation in dementia: an exploratory randomized controlled trial. Aging & mental health, 17(6), 667–678.

Blog Post by Josie McCutcheon, MT-BC