Music Therapy Implications for Hospice Care

Music Therapy Implications for Hospice Care

Hospice and palliative care aim to support patients’ quality of life by reducing physiological, psychological, social and spiritual distress and improving comfort. Music therapists working in hospice care facilitate a variety of active and passive therapeutic music experiences (including songwriting, improvisation, guided imagery and music, lyric analysis, singing, instrument playing, and music supported relaxation techniques) to address end of life needs. In a 2005 journal article titled “Music Therapy in Hospice and Palliative Care: a Review of the Empirical Data,” Russell Hilliard reviewed 11 empirical studies from the hospice and palliative care music therapy literature. This blog post will share the outcomes of his analysis and explain the implications for music therapy in hospice care.

The studies Hilliard reviewed were conducted to determine music therapy’s effect on anxiety, relaxation, pain perception, spirituality, mood, quality of life, length of life, and physical comfort/discomfort for terminally ill patients and found that music therapy is an effective end of life service. The majority of the studies showed a statistically significant difference in the target symptom(s) with the use of music therapy, which means that over half of the studies found music therapy to be an effective treatment. Patients who received multiple music therapy sessions yielded better results than those patients who received only one session. Additionally, when the music therapists used live music instead of recorded music to actively engage with the patients, the music therapy treatment was more effective in decreasing discomfort and pain perception and increasing quality of life.

I was fascinated to read that, in one study in particular, the more music therapy the patients received, the higher their quality of life, even as their physical health declined. Another study revealed that music therapists are the only hospice professionals consistently addressing emotional, cognitive, spiritual, social and physical needs. In the same study, the researchers found that music therapists spend more time in sessions with hospice patients living in nursing homes than do nurses or social workers.

Government agencies and other funding sources strive to make sure that hospice services provided meet the needs of hospice patients and their families. Hilliard’s literature review clearly highlights importance of having a music therapist on the hospice treatment team. From increased quality of life to decreased anxiety to enhanced spiritual well-being, music therapy is a crucial tool in supporting end of life health. Luckily, hospice companies are creating new positions for music therapists every year. To find a hospice music therapist in your area, please visit In the meantime, ask your loved ones about their preferred music, which we know to be the most powerful musical tool. If you have a friend or family member who is terminally ill, don’t be afraid to sing those favorite songs together. Not only will you create lasting memories, you may also help to increase your loved one’s comfort.

Hilliard, R. (2005). Music therapy in hospice and palliative care: a review of the empirical data. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2(2), 173-178.

By: Amy Dunlap, MT-BC