From Jim's Desk

Jim Desk

Everything on this site pertaining to music therapy in aged care and for older adults is a direct result of my personal experience, and proven music therapy programs that have worked for over 30 years.

At the age of 10, I was playing in nursing homes and prisons and doing community music programs with the Red Cross for my mother’s charity organization in Adelaide South Australia.

During my study at Adelaide University (Batchelor of Music Jazz Course), Class of ’84 with Andrew Firth, (one of the greatest clarinet players on the planet), I left to do a Francis of Assisi, ‘walk in their shoes’ so to speak, and travel the world researching music therapy, which included Native Indian reservations, and African American special schools in Harlem, New York. 

Much of the material gathered was for the Alternative school I worked on staff for as a music teacher/therapist at Warriappendi alternative school in Adelaide. This is stuff you can’t find in any study book.

Mission Australia hired me on staff as an ‘activity officer/music therapist’ in aged care for 5 years and that experience was invaluable, enabling my research into music therapy in aged care to make significant progress, gathering many wonderful case histories.

I was employed in Australia by two nursing homes in aged care, on staff as music therapist for 40 hours a week for 5 years. Why? Because my programs worked … which was obvious to management, staff, and related families. Unfortunately, in Australia it was unheard of then … and still is today.

The reasons for this vary … from being a complex aged care industry to music therapy still not being understood or accepted in the community as having significant therapeutic benefits.

I designed my own assessments, care plans, daily attendance records, supplied my own job description, and passed government accreditation with flying colors. Again…. the experience will not be found in any study book, and I emphasize my work is empirical, based on observation, experiments, results and not on theory. What I am talking about is instincts, empathy, compassion, and understanding.

The world is full of music therapy journals trying to prove that music therapy works, but I question, as others do, many aspects of that process. The value of music and its therapeutic benefits is not something that can be measured by science alone, and therefore I am not dominated by it.

In my experience I have found that whether you know the person or not makes all the difference in the effectiveness of the therapy which involves inter-personal relationships and TRUST.

This develops and enables clients to communicate their emotions in a way that only exists between the music therapist and the client. Psychiatrists and others are intrigued how music therapists can design a music project solely around one individual, with individual songs, that have individual character, and the healing process that inevitably follows. That’s our secret, and that’s exactly what I want to share with you.
To be actively involved with music therapy in aged care is a rewarding experience, and my primary role is to ensure their last days on earth are happy ones.

Music therapists must be given time to establish inter-personal relationships with the residents. It’s not good enough just to play some recorded music and walk away. Playing music over loudspeakers in a nursing home can be toxic. Music is a very powerful modality and should be respected for its effectiveness. It’s wrong to think that music therapy in aged care is just a matter of turning off the TV and putting something on at ‘sundown’ time without any personal intervention, and hoping to reduce staff costs.

True music therapy must work in the context of person centered care. Everyone comes to aged care with their own life history and for a person with cognitive impairment who can’t control their emotion, music can trigger memories they can’t understand. A song can trigger positive and happy memories, but can also trigger unhappy negative emotions.

Music can’t be depersonalised , and a music therapist should discover then meet everyone’s musical memories and needs. Never underestimate the power of song when expressed by choirs comprised of residents of all cognitions and staff , as a tool for decreasing depression and increasing social interaction and reminiscing.

When all the elements of music are stripped away, we are left with two instruments in our bodies … rhythm and voice. Singing reaches the soul and spirit of a person, and rhythm adds potency. Unlike language, which sits in one portion of the brain, music is in many parts of the brain, so you would have to almost eliminate the brain completely for music not to have an effect.


I am a member of the Australian Performing Right Association Ltd  (APRA) Copyright Australia Ltd (CAL) and member, Institute of music teachers (m.i.m.t) (National)  and bound by each association's strict code of ethics. Confidentiality is ensured. 

“Music therapy doesn’t change people, it allows them to become more completely who they are” is a quote from Clive Robbins, one of the founders of the Nordoff-Robbins approach to music therapy.