Music


Music, a universal language in life and death

Music, a universal language in life and death

Drawing on their musical and clinical palliative care training, music-thanatologists use harp and voice to address physical, emotional and spiritual suffering at the end of life. Using music prescriptively, they vary the tempo and tone of music to respond to changes occurring in a patient's body, like a slowing of pulse and breathing, in the final hours of life. During their visits — music vigils — they alternate sound and silence to help patients and loved ones relax and rest.

Music connects us universally. Some will say that it is music that makes us human.

Anthropologist John Blacking in his 1973 book, “How Musical is Man?” bemoans that Western culture music has become the domain of the so-called “experts.” However, when examining the cultures he had studied, music was simply a part of a person’s everyday life.

Music is part of everyone.

All living humans have the tempo of their heart rate and the depth of their respiration rate. But as we die, these mostly lyrical and robust waves change; with a shorter ambitus, a gurgling texture overlaying the breath, and a barely perceptible pulse. How can the living relate to this change, especially we when we in our technology-driven culture, don’t see ourselves as experts in either death or music?

Hospice music therapy gently relaxes loved ones

Hospice music therapy gently relaxes loved ones

I recently provided a music therapy visit to a woman named Edith, a 91-year-old hospice patient with dementia and depression. When I arrived, she was reclined in her padded geriatric chair with her feet supported and a blanket covering her lap. Her eyes were closed, and she looked relaxed and content. The room was quiet.

Her spouse Chester was present and his face appeared tired and tense. When I offered them a music therapy visit, he loudly replied, “Yes! I think that would be good! You never know what she’ll do!”

He shared that his wife was a singer, and although we did not suggest or expect her to sing or otherwise actively engage in the visit, we hoped she would hear us and know she was loved and not alone.

Music in hospice – an unbroken connection

Music in hospice – an unbroken connection

Drawing on their musical and clinical palliative care training, music-thanatologists use harp and voice to address physical, emotional and spiritual suffering at the end of life. Using music prescriptively, they vary the tempo and tone of music to respond to changes occurring in a patient's body, like a slowing of pulse and breathing, in the final hours of life. During their visits — music vigils — they alternate sound and silence to help patients and loved ones relax and rest.

In my work as a music-thanatologist, there are certain vigils that stand out in such a way that leave me feeling especially grateful for what we are able to offer patients and families at this most critical and sacred time of their lives. At these times, I feel that I am at the right place at the right time and I am grateful for the deep connections made. The following narrative is from one of those vigils:

There are many family members present when I arrive at Jason’s home: his wife, Kim, two daughters Lucy and Naomi, his son-in-law and a baby. The kitchen is abuzz with conversation and planning. The sound of a television is coming from Jason’s room.

When it is time for me to enter the small, dimly lit room, Jason’s JourneyCare nurse is measuring his heart rate and oxygen levels, which are regular. Jason is lying on his back, supported with pillows and slightly turned toward his left side. His brow is smooth, his eyes are closed. He does not rouse to speech or touch. By now, only Kim and their two daughters remain in the room.

‘Tis the season to…sing!

I think this really is the most special time of the year, particularly because of the holiday music! Music and singing have been part of my life since the sixth grade, when I became involved in the school choir at the urging of my wonderful music teacher. Singing plays such an important role during the holidays and it has some amazing effects on our wellness.

Holiday music inspires us to raise our voices and creates a fun sense of camaraderie when we gather spontaneously around a piano to belt out “Jingle Bells,” “Over the River and Through the Wood,” or any other favorite carols. Those who routinely sing together in a group, as when part of a chorus, know it creates a tight social bond as every voice works together to create a harmonious sound. (Shout out to the JourneyCare Choir, which includes staff members from throughout our agency!) Even singing in your car to favorite holiday songs on the radio can be uplifting!

Hospice music: fine tuning the quality of life

Hospice music: fine tuning the quality of life

In honor of National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, we are celebrating the hospice and healthcare workers who hold the hands and hearts of our patients and their families every day. In tribute to the physical, emotional and spiritual work they do, each blog this month will bring you an up close look at how they bring compassionate care to patients and families in extraordinary ways. We hope you will be inspired by these stories which shine the spotlight on these everyday heroes.


As a music therapist for hospice and palliative care patients, I feel incredibly grateful each day that I have the privilege to do this unique work. This November I reflect on National Hospice and Palliative Care Month, and realize I can honestly say that I absolutely love my job and the work that we do here at JourneyCare.

In my journey as a music therapist, I experience so many touching moments with our patients. But what makes my work especially worthwhile are the “WOW” or breathtaking moments. And sometimes, when I least expect it, a “nice” visit can become one of my best.

The Joy of Music Therapy - Brian's Journey

The Joy of Music Therapy - Brian's Journey

Last December I had the pleasure of visiting a retired artist and teacher. His advanced prostate cancer left him with pain throughout his body, and his bladder spasms and infections had helped to slowly cease his social life. He was referred to music therapy services to elevate his mood and lessen social isolation, to promote reminiscence, story-sharing, and life review, and to refocus him away from feelings of pain and discomfort. As with all clients who I see for music therapy, I have the wonderful challenge of finding how music interventions can assist in easing identified symptoms. Knowing that the brain can only take in so much information at once, using Brian’s* preferred music held his attention and engaged him in enjoyable and meaningful moments, pulling his focus away from his pain. The perception of his pain and discomfort lessened as we sang together and talked about the music he loved throughout his life.

Celebrating Chanukah

Celebrating Chanukah

‘Tis the season of comfort and joy. How is that possible working with Jewish patients in hospice? That’s not as much of a challenge as might one think. As a Jewish Care Service Ambassador, I have the wonderful opportunity to visit with our Jewish hospice patients and provide Jewish support and companionship.

Let The Music Play: Connecting Through Dementia

Let The Music Play: Connecting Through Dementia

Susan was overwhelmed. Her job allowed her to work from home to care for her mother, Adeline, but juggling work tasks with her mother’s increasing need for care proved challenging beyond what she thought was possible. 

Adeline had dementia and colon cancer. She had been a school teacher and in between moments of agitation she still had a warm, friendly tone to her now nonsensical speech.

As a music therapist for Adeline, I would visit her home, and Susan was always quick to apologize as their three large, joyful rescue dogs tripped over each other to greet me at the door, or tried to vocalize along with our music. Even with a caregiver eight hours a day and support from our hospice staff, Susan was hurried and anxious.

Susan grieved her mother’s cognitive decline. Growing up, she had admired her mother’s intelligence and was taught to value her own. Now that Adeline could no longer answer simple questions, Susan felt her mom was "already gone." She spoke of rare moments of increased lucidity like visits from a ghost — each time her mother was able to orient to reality and speak with her, she knew it may be the last time.

Music Speaks

Music Speaks

Music therapists use a range of musical techniques to help hospice patients relax, express feelings and recall significant experiences from their lives. Using both instruments and voice, music therapists encourage pateints to sing along with them or will help patients write songs to leave as a legacy for the people they love.

I don’t think I will ever forget one of my first experiences working as a full-time music therapist in hospice. Fresh out of an internship and living in a new city I realized I had some growing to do. I can remember my first couple of visits with one gentleman in particular. At the time, I was referred to help him with anxiety and processing of his illness. Strong, independent, and very open about what he wanted and didn’t, he was of course a little hesitant of the young woman walking in with a guitar ready to sing — wanting to know exactly how I could help him.

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