How Music Can Help Someone Receiving Palliative Care

Humans respond to music and other sounds through our emotions and intellect alike, so it isn’t surprising that music can impact a person’s sense of well-being and function. Researchers have observed demonstrable changes in the brain when a person is listening to music.

Here are some of the benefits music brings as part of palliative care for someone experiencing a serious illness:

  • Music has been shown to have a positive effect on the perception of pain, through relaxation and diversion.
  • Music can improve blood pressure, heart rate, breathing and muscle tone.
  • Music and sounds can have a positive emotional effect—calming, energizing, soothing or relaxing. It can be used to reduce depression.
  • Music can stimulate reminiscing and help with the process of life review for the person who is dealing with end-of-life issues. It offers an opportunity to re-experience past events and cultural experiences.
  • Music brings everyone in the room closer as they “co-experience” the same rhythms, moods and responses. It can bond people together in a shared experience at a time that might be difficult for both.

Tips for using music and sound

Here are some suggestions from music therapists about how hospice staff, volunteers and family members can use music and sound as part of palliative care:

  1. If possible, discuss preferences and selections with the person. Otherwise, discuss the music with someone who would be familiar with the person’s favorites, thinking about cultural background, the time period of the music, and spiritual choices the person would make.
  2. Ask permission to play the music.
  3. Create a comfortable place and position.
  4. Place the player near the person and select a volume that is comfortable. If possible, enable the person to adjust the volume and selections. (Marking the “on” and “off” buttons with colored tape can simplify the use of the machine.)
  5. Playing the music aloud allows everyone in the room to share the experience. If the person is using earphones, be sure they fit comfortably and are not confining or hard to keep on.
  6. To help the person slow the rate of breath, release tension, and harmonize brain waves, choose music specifically designed for relaxation. (For example, cello music, with its rich tones and the quality of the sound, is often chosen to assist people who are in pain.)
  7. A wide variety of “sound collections” are available—for example, gentle waves at the seashore, forest sounds, tinkling chimes.

For more information

The American Music Therapy Association offers information, resources and ideas for using music as part of palliative care.