Music-Thanatology

Music-thanatology is a professional field within the broader subspecialty of palliative care. It is a musical/clinical modality that unites music and medicine in end-of-life care. The music-thanatologist utilizes harp and voice at the bedside to lovingly serve the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of people who are terminally ill or dying (and their loved ones), with the prescriptive delivery of music. 

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Articles & Interviews

2023, Open to Hope Podcast: The Healing Power of Music

2023, Thanatologists are trying to recruit a new generation to the field

2023, Music at the Bedside of the Dying

2016 Weekend Edition, What Music for the Dying Sounds Like

2015 New York Times, Providing the Soundtrack for Life’s Last Moments

Prescriptive Delivery of Music

Prescriptively delivered music is live music that responds to the physiological/existential needs of the patient moment by moment. By observing vital signs such as respirations, heart rate, and temperature, the music-thanatologist provides music that is tailored to each specific situation. The warmth of this living music can bring solace, dignity, and grace to those nearing the ultimate journey at the end of life.

Prescriptively delivered music can help ease physical symptoms such as pain, restlessness, agitation, sleeplessness, and labored breathing. It creates an atmosphere of serenity and comfort that can be profoundly soothing for those present. Difficult emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and grief can be relieved as those present are invited to rest into a musical atmosphere of beauty, intimacy, and compassion.

Music-thanatologists care for dying patients using harp and vocal music as prescription rather than performance. With the raw materials of music, we offer vigils that are tailored to a patient’s diagnosis, vital signs and responses in the moment.

Jennifer L. Hollis for The New York Times

Music as Medicine

Music-thanatology is not intended to entertain or distract the patient. Instead, it allows the patient to enter into the process of letting go in their own very personal way. It affords those who are present a chance to be with their loved one in an intimate yet safe atmosphere where words are not necessary, and words that are spoken come from deep within, supported by the music.

Music and medicine have a long tradition as allies in healing. Music-thanatology is a contemporary field rooted in that same tradition. Today, music-thanatologists practice throughout the United States and in several other countries around the world.

As medical technology becomes more advanced, it is recognized that there is suffering that eludes even the most sophisticated medical treatment. Clinicians and caregivers welcome music-thanatology vigils as an integral part of care that offers an opportunity to relieve suffering and provide comfort.

The Music-Thanatology Community

The Music-Thanatology Association International provides information about events, certification and an online list of music-thanatologists. 

The videos below offer a window into the nature of the work of a music-thanatologist.