Kirstin Robertson-Gillam research
Research interests

My current research interests include the neuroscientific link between music, language and wellbeing.  Targeted areas of research include depression and dementia. If you would like to discuss this research, please email me.

At the Western Sydney University, I was until recently lecturer and course coordinator for the Masters in Creative Music Therapy.  For more details click/tap on the university logo >>>

I continue my involvement with the university by supervising Higher Degree students.

My PhD,  Western Sydney University, 2009-2014

Reducing major depression in mid to later life with a choir therapy program:
A mixed methods study    [Full text here]

The study

My research explored major depression in mid to later
life and the efficacy of a choir therapy program which
included mindfulness-based cognitive relaxation to
reduce symptoms.  An eight week controlled trial
(N=32) compared choir therapy to a wait list control
group, using standard psychological questionnaires
and inventories. A pilot study (N=9) of choir participants
measured brain asymmetry patterns with quantitative
EEG for triangulation purposes.  Results showed
significant decreases in depression, increases in
wellness and positive re-balancing of brain waves.  Consequently, the choir therapy program was found to be a valuable adjunct treatment intervention for major depression especially in older populations.

Previous research has demonstrated that choral singing is effective at reducing symptoms of depression in elderly people with severe dementia. A sample of 32 volunteers mostly reporting depressive symptoms and/or physical
illnesses were chosen with an age range of 48-73 years.  A choir was formed specifically for this trial and a
specific choir therapy methodology used involving physical and mental exercises, singing exercises and the learning of songs with a significant emotional and/or spiritual impact.  Pre/post assessments were conducted for depressive symptoms (Beck II Depression Inventory), post traumatic stress (PTSD Checklist), quality of life (WHO-QOL-BREF), and wellness (Spirituality Index of Wellbeing).  Psychological factors such as motivation, self confidence, self esteem, mood feelings and social actions were self-rated throughout the study.  A limited pre/post QEEG study was also conducted in parallel to monitor brain wave pattern changes in choir members over the course of the trial. 


The results indicate a statistically significant decrease in depression symptoms and an increase in wellness scores as a result of the choir therapy.  The QEEG results have shown a rebalancing of brain waves away from symptoms of depression in all subjects tested.  These findings support the notion that choir therapy can decrease symptoms of depression by changing brain wave patterns in the short term (8 weeks). 

Replications of this study are invited to increase the understanding of the phenomena.

The full text of my PhD thesis is here.   If you would like to discuss my research, please email me.
My research
Dr Kirstin Robertson-Gillam
PhD   M.A(Hons)   M.Counselling     BA(Psych) 
Registered Nurse   Registered Music Therapist

My Masters (Honours), Western Sydney University,  2007-2008
The effects of singing in a choir compared with participating in a reminiscence group on reducing depression in people with dementia      [Full text here]

The study

A randomised controlled mixed methods trial was conducted with residents of an aged care facility between May and August 2007.  Qualitative data was examined for related themes which enhanced the quantitative analysis.  There were 41 participants (age range: 74-93 years) all with a medical diagnosis of dementia.  Informed consent and ethical approval was obtained.  Participants were randomly assigned to one of three groups: Choir Therapy, Reminiscence Therapy or Control Group. 

The study was single blind as the researcher conducted the sessions with research assistants.  Fifteen sessions of choir and reminiscence therapies were conducted twice weekly.  Symptoms of depression were measured before and after the treatments using the Cornell Scale for Depression in Dementia.  The Mini Mental State Examination was used to gauge the levels of cognitive functioning at baseline.  Participants' responses to the therapy sessions were concurrently collected and analysed for related themes as qualitative data.  Average depression scores declined significantly for all groups over time.  When the choir group was compared with the control group over time, there was a significant difference (p=0.027), indicating that the choir group was more effective in reducing depression over time.  The reminiscence group scores were also compared with the control group scores over time, revealing a reduction in depression which was less significant than the choir group scores (p=0.111). 


Themes from the qualitative data showed improvements in the following areas: safety and security needs; increased communication and social interaction; increased positive moods; increased motivation; and, expanded attention spans.  All three groups showed decreased depression with the greatest fall in the choir group.  This indicated that choir when compared to reminiscence has higher efficacy in mitigating symptoms of depression in people with dementia.  Both therapies were shown to be effective and safe.

A copy of the complete thesis is here.

If you would like to discuss my research, please email me.

3MT: Three Minute Thesis competition

Kirstin represented the School of Humanities & Communication Arts at the Western Sydney University's 3MT competition in 2012 and came third overall.  Her presentation was on the choir therapy research she did for her PhD.
Dr Kirstin Robertson-Gillam's PhD research choir
Book chapters

Creative Approaches In Dementia Care

Chapter 5

Music Therapy in dementia care.
Ageing, Disability & Spirituality

Elizabeth MacKinlay (ed)

Jessica Kingsley Publishers

Chapter 14

Hearing The Voice Of The Elderly:  The potential for choir work to reduce depression and meet spiritual needs.

Journal articles

Petchkovsky, L., Robertson-Gillam, K., Kropotov, J., and Petchkovsky, M.  (2013).  Using QEEG parameters (asymmetry, coherence and P3a novelty response) to track improvement in depression after music therapy. Advances in Mental Health, 11(3): 257-267.  [June 2013]

This pilot study reports the findings from a sub-group of nine patients (from a cohort of 32 middle-aged ambulant depressive patients undergoing an intensive 8-week choral singing programme) who received 'before' and 'after' quantitative electroencephalography (QEEG).  'Before' and 'after' mental state examinations and Beck Depression Inventory showed significant improvement (p < 0.001).  Group spectral analysis of resting QEEG showed greater L/R hemispheric symmetry of activity, reduction of right polar pre-frontal hyper activity, and reduction of hypercoherence (all reported depressive parameters).  Event related potentials results revealed that an initially heightened P3a novelty cingulate gyrus response reduced significantly over the course of the treatment (p < 0.05).


Robertson-Gillam, K., Atherton, M., and Petchkovsky, L.  (2013). Breaking the silence and singing out the pain: Voice work for traumatised clients, CAPA Quarterly, Issue One 2013, Sydney, Australia: Counsellors & Psychotherapists Association: 18-22.  ISSN 1835-937X.  Peer reviewed journal article.   [February 2013]

This article defines and describes how individual vocal improvisation and a choir support program (developed by Kirstin Robertson-Gillam) can enhance existing practices for addressing psychological trauma.  The efficacy of these creative approaches is described and supported by their underlying theories. A pivotal case study and research in this area.


Petchkovsky, L., Robertson-Gillam, K., and Kropotov, Y., (2012).  Using QEEG parameters (asymmetry, coherence, and P3a novelty response) to track improvement in the treatment of depression.  Proceedings, Australian Cognitive Neuroscience Conference, 29 November - 2 December 2012, Brisbane.  Peer reviewed conference paper.


Robertson-Gillam, K.  (2012). Choir therapy as a psychotherapeutic intervention for reducing depression in mid to later life, Proceedings of the 11th National Conference of Emerging Researchers in Ageing, 19-20 November 2012, Brisbane, University of Queensland: 76-79.  Peer reviewed paper.   [This paper and the associated presentation at the conference won the Helen Bartlett Prize for Innovation in Ageing Research 2012.]

This research project investigated the efficacy of choir therapy to reduce mid to later life depression.Thirty-two community dwelling volunteers from the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, aged 48-73 years participated in the study.  Some were allocated to the choir group (N=21) and the remainder to a wait list control group (N=11).  In addition to the main study, a pilot trial (N=9), using electroencephalographic technology (QEEG) was conducted with participants randomly selected from the choir in order to investigate whether any brain changes occurred as the result of choir singing.  The results showed that choir therapy as a psychological intervention treatment could effectively improve quality of life, thereby reducing depression in mid to later life.


Robertson-Gillam, K.  (2012). Hearing the Voices of Dementia: A Person-centred Approach, CAPA Quarterly, Issue Four 2012, Sydney, Australia: Counsellors & Psychotherapists Association: 12-16.  ISSN 1835-937X.  Peer reviewed journal article.   [November 2012]

The gradual decline of cognitive abilities that typify the dementing process appear to diminish one's sense of personhood.  It seems that those we love gradually fade away over time, leaving behind a shell of the person we once knew and loved.  Do they really disappear?  Or do they go into another time zone, another space where life is different than it was previously?  After a decade of research into dementia and depression in older people, I have come to believe that our loved ones are still there and that we must find them by developing a new perspective.


Robertson-Gillam, K.  (2011). Can choir singing reduce depression in mid to later age?, Proceedings of the 10th National Conference of Emerging Researchers in Ageing, 25 November 2011, Sydney, University of NSW: 99-105.  Peer reviewed paper.  

The preliminary results of this study indicate that choral therapy has more than entertainment value.  It meets much deeper needs for those involving themselves in it and is significant in developing resources to face life's challenges.  Choir membership generates a feeling of belonging to a group; a need all of us carry into old age.  Moreover, it dispels feelings of isolation, hopelessness and lack of purpose which can mortify one's sense of self identity and sink vulnerable individuals into misery and despair as they approach old age.  The potential impact of this choir therapy research is promising for increased health and wellbeing in later life with social isolation as one of the major factors..


Robertson-Gillam, K.  (2010). Can choir singing reduce depression in mid to later age? A research project with QEEG testing, Proceedings of the SEMPRE Music Health & Welling conference, 9-10 September 2011, Folkestone UK, University of Canterbury.


Robertson-Gillam, K.  (2010). Can symptoms of adult depression be reduced with choral singing? Music therapy  --  transformation and wellbeing, Proceedings of the 20th Annual TheMHS Conference, 14-17 September 2010, Darling Harbour, Sydney.  Peer reviewed paper.  

This study demonstrated that choir therapy when compared to reminiscence therapy has a higher potential for mitigating symptoms of depression in people with dementia.  The social interaction of choir singing along with learning the skill of singing seemed to be a potent combination for increasing quality of life and a sense of wellbeing.


Other articles

Hitting The Right Note
Aged Care INsite
June/July 2011

New research shows there are caveats to successful music therapy programs.
Article here


Choir Magic
Canadian Aging Horizons Bulletin
Sept/Oct 2009

Interview about the potential for choir work to enhance the lives of older adults living in residential care settings.
Article here


Hello in There
Music Council of Australia
Music Forum magazine, v13, no2, 2007

Music therapist, Kirstin Robertson-Gillam, uses choir therapy to help older people connect with their past, their future, their breath and the power of silence.
Article here


Songs to Remember
Sydney Morning Herald, Sunday Life.
Sept 2006
Interviewed by Claire Scobie

The healing power of music has been known for aeons but only recently have aged-care facilities discovered its ability to provide relief for those who have Alzheimer’s disease.
Article here


Other resources

Creative Counselling: Listening to the Space Between
29-30 May 2010, Sydney
Annual Conference of the NSW Counsellors & Psychotherapists Association (CAPA).


Expression of Hearts and Voices: Creative Spirited Living for People with Dementia
October 2009, Adelaide
4th International Conference on Creative Expression, Communication and Dementia.


eBOOK: Ageing, Disability & Spirituality
BOOK: Creative Approaches in Dementia Care
BOOK: Creative Approaches in Dementia Care
eBOOK: Ageing, Disability & Spirituality
Western Sydney University