The power of music at the end of life

Categories: Care.

Nurse Monica McCahery, senior educator at Wigan and Leigh Hospice, writes about the importance of music at the end of life.

Communication and feelings relating to loss and grief can be extremely difficult for patients to express as they approach the end of their lives.

Music has long been acknowledged as a powerful tool for expression and as an effective instrument in meeting the needs of those who are facing illness and loss, whilst searching for meaning, hope and acceptance. Evidence also suggests that music holds the power to facilitate emotional expression and loss and grief issues in terminally ill patients.

As someone who believes wholeheartedly in the power of music and has seen the difference it can make to someone at the end of life, I find it thrilling that music therapy is increasingly being used in end-of-life care. A growing number of music therapists are now employed in hospices and by hospital-based palliative care programmes.

Music therapy in end-of-life care aims to improve a person’s quality of life by helping to relieve symptoms, address psychological needs, offer support and comfort, facilitate communication and meet spiritual needs. It is based on the understanding that all human beings are able to respond to music irrespective of ability or disability and is supported by a growing evidence base.

Professor Paul Robertson, a concert violinist and academic who undertook a recent study of music in dementia care in 2015 concurs with these findings and reminds us that the auditory system of the brain is the first to fully function at 16 weeks, which means we are musically receptive long before anything else. His findings suggest that we remain contactable as musical beings on some level right up to the very end of life.

The utilisation of music as a medium to promote spiritual and physical wellness is not a new concept and can in fact be dated back to 500 B.C. when the ancient Grecians recognised its therapeutic properties in healing practices. According to Damon, a music theorist of the 5th century BC and teacher of Socrates and Pericles, music is powerful because it imitates the movements of the soul.

Music therapy can be employed as a medium for emancipating feelings – rekindling emotions and enabling a freedom of communication which needs no words. Musical experiences may include listening to live, therapist-composed, improvised, or pre-recorded music, performing music on an instrument, improvising music spontaneously using voice or instruments and composing music.

It was wonderful to learn that last year music therapist Mary Dunsford, who works as a Musician in Healthcare at Furness General Hospital, gained funding from Arts Council England to further develop her creative practice in using music in end of life care. Mary feels that her work is about providing dignity for people coming to the end of their lives and enabling the creation of beautiful moments.

Mary is one of a number of speakers who will be contributing to a national conference, ‘Living & Dying Well in a Care Home’ chaired by Hospice UK CEO Tracey Bleakley at Leigh Sports Village, Greater Manchester, on March 13 2019. The conference aims to equip health and social care professionals with the knowledge and skills required to ensure that all residents in care homes are supported to live a full life and experience a peaceful dignified death in their chosen place of care. Email: or see Wigan & Leigh Hospice for further details.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *