Musical machines: how QT-robots are supporting music therapy with older people in care homes

Dr Fabia Franco and Dr Anthony Mangiacotti tell us how, as part of their DMT-funded project, they and their colleagues are investigating the potential for robots to support music therapy in care homes.

We think that the robots will allow care home staff to become more involved with music therapy, as they have to facilitate the interactions between the robots and residents

Research has shown that music therapy can have great benefits for older people living in care homes. However, it’s not always feasible for a care home to offer regular sessions by a trained therapist due to budget constraints. In addition, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic we have also become aware of situations in which there is a need to reduce face-to-face interaction. 

We have been funded by the Dunhill Medical Trust to see whether using robots as an aid in music therapy can: 1) allow more people to access its benefits, 2) facilitate the inclusion of carers in the music therapy programme, and 3) potentially offer opportunities for cross-generational communication during family visits to residents.

Yes, robots! In this case we’re using QTrobots, which are human-shaped but still very much robot-like in their appearance. They were originally designed to support children with autism, but have since been used for a variety of support and interactions. Importantly, the robots are small and light enough to be moved between rooms or care homes relatively easily, further increasing the feasibility of their use in real-world situations. This part of the project will be supervised by Dr Eris Chinellato (an expert in Human-Robot Interaction).

Man in white shirt with short hair smiling at camera
Dr Eris Chinellato

Before starting this project, we needed to know whether older people would want to interact with humanoid robots at all, so we tested them with volunteers from the University of the Third Age. Their responses were very positive, giving us the confidence to take them into care homes for potential use in therapy.

How robots can help with music therapy
Music therapy is not simply playing some tunes or having a sing-a-long. It’s an interactive, personalised therapy that is designed to help people with communication, self-expression, memory, mood and more (follow this link to find out more), and is delivered by a trained therapist.

To recapitulate these interactions in care homes, the robots are programmed by the music therapist to deliver structured, interactive music exercises based on their latest live sessions. The robots also record any interactions with the care home resident, allowing the therapist to check on their progress and tailor future sessions – whether face-to-face or robotic – to their individual needs.

We think that the robots will allow care home staff to become more involved with music therapy, as they have to facilitate the interactions between the robots and residents. This will improve relationships and connections between staff and residents, and help to build staff knowledge around music therapy.

In situations such as the COVID-19 pandemic when therapists aren’t always able to visit care homes, these robots may help residents to gain the benefits of tailored music therapy while minimising risk. Previously, our research has shown that music therapy has cognitive and psychophysiological benefits for care home residents that translate beyond the therapy sessions, so it’s vital that people do not miss out on these opportunities – especially during this time.

Technological advances in AI and robotics have huge potential to add value to older people’s lives, but we need to ensure that we are testing and understanding where they will really help, rather than just using them for the sake of it or as gimmicks. Our musical robots will never replace human therapists, but we hope they will increase access to the benefits and joy that music interactions can bring.

Find out more
You can read the case study on our project here and, if you would like to see another example of robots in action (in this case dancing!), check out this video of Pepper – a similar robot to QTrobot – on Anthony’s Instagram page.

Our co-applicant, Dr Ming Hung Hsu, previously published this paper on the use of individual music therapy for the management of dementia symptoms. In addition, this paper from Fabia and colleagues examines how matching the mood of the music with that of the listener could improve the effectiveness of musical interventions.