Music at the Bedside of the Dying

Julia Smith, CM-Th, Providence Willamette Falls Medical Center

My father’s death was unexpected. Though he was in his 80s he was active and alert, swimming three times a week, working in his garden. A sudden medical event brought him into the hospital and his decline was rapid. After a week of attempts to save him, including intubation with a breathing tube, we decided that we had to let him go. Our extended family gathered at his bedside in tears as the medical staff prepared to remove his breathing tube which had become his life line.

A music-thanatologist was summoned to offer music. As the resonant tones of her harp filled the room, our tears flowed more freely, our grief was expressed openly. As the harpist continued to play, however, our sadness began to lift and was replaced by an overwhelming love for my father and for each other. A light filled the room as the breathing tube was removed and my father quickly passed from us. The tones of the harp and lovely voice of the music-thanatologist carried us all into a space of acceptance and peace.

This is the work of music-thanatology, to accompany a person as they approach this transition, to carry a person and their loved ones through the liminal space of decline and death. The music-thanatologist is a loving presence, a witness, and the tones of the harp and voice fill the void that can no longer be addressed by medical intervention or even words of encouragement. It is an ancient practice that speaks to the natural passage of death and honors those who pass through its portal. Currently, music-thanatology has taken its place as a  meaningful form of end-of-life care in many hospital and hospice settings.

Music-thanatologists are taught to use music prescriptively to address pain or anxiety that a person may be experiencing in their last days. Breathing patterns may change as a person approaches death and the music is often tailored to support the breath and help one to relax. Musical choices  are made as the music-thanatologist observes a person and how they are responding to the music, however subtly. Hospices and hospitals across the United States and even in a few foreign countries have employed the skills of music-thanatologists. 

Accorda Music-Thanatology Institute is a new school which combines online and in-person learning, along with harp and voice lessons and an in-person internship over a period of 23 months. Accorda is now accepting applications and will begin classes this September. Anyone interested in joining this group of professional caregivers can visit the school’s website at for more information and to apply.

Accorda Music-Thanatology Institute  is a Nonprofit 501(c)(3) and is licensed by the Higher Education Coordinating Committee (HECC) in the state of Oregon as a Private Career School.

Accorda Music-Thanatology Institute does not and shall not discriminate based on race, color, religion (creed), gender, gender expression, age, national origin (ancestry), disability, marital status, sexual orientation, or military status in any of its activities or operations. These activities include, but are not limited to, admission and training of students, hiring and firing of staff, selection of volunteers and vendors, and provision of services. We are committed to providing an inclusive and welcoming environment for all members of our student body, faculty, staff, volunteers, subcontractors, and vendors.

Any person unlawfully discriminated against, as described in ORS 345.240, may file a complaint under 659A.820 with the Commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries. School policies governing employees will be enforced in situations where instructional staff or other school personnel have been found to have engaged in discriminatory behavior.