Music in Hospice and Palliative Care

doctor playing violin for patients in hospital

“Music is the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” – Ludwig van Beethoven

We all know how powerful music can be, and many of us use music to mark important moments in our lives like weddings and graduations. End-of-life is also an important moment with more people – and organizations – incorporating music therapy as part of hospice and palliative care.

Recent research suggests that listening to music while in hospice or receiving palliative care decreases pain, anxiety, depression, nausea, and even shortness of breath. Pain medicines, in particular opioids, were less needed. Music can bring satisfaction and wellbeing, attention and comfort, socialization and sharing, and memories and experiences. “When we talk about end-of-life work, we are talking about loss,” Kristen O’Grady, a music therapist explains, “But music is an inherently creative process. So we are directly opposing this feeling of loss with a feeling of creation. We are having creative, new experiences even in the last moments of someone’s life.”

Although generally a positive experience, it’s essential to know that sometimes music therapy can make individuals more fatigued, remorseful about their changed state of health, or uneasy until adapting to the presence of music.

Professional, board-certified music therapists are trained specifically to integrate music into health care, whether at a private home, in a hospice house, or within a hospital or long-term care facility. Music therapy is more than hitting a “play” button on a boombox. It’s research-based treatment using music to help with psychological and physical needs. Musical therapists work as part of an interdisciplinary team to provide comfort and expression for the individual and their loved ones; sessions can be one-on-one, with the family, or within a group. Examples of activities include:

  • listening to music
  • lyric study
  • musical improvisation
  • songwriting
  • guided relaxation
  • life review
  • legacy design
  • bereavement

Music therapy isn’t just for those who have music ability and isn’t confined to one type of music. Anyone can benefit and all music styles can be helpful. It’s the person’s musical preferences, health circumstances, and treatment needs which determine which music will be used.

Approximately one in four music therapists work in hospice care at least part-time. The American Music Therapy Association is a great place to learn more about music in hospice and palliative care, including resources and ideas.

Sources:; BMC Palliative Care; American Music Therapy Association