Singing with Cancer and Palliative Patients

As a music therapist that works with cancer patients and palliative patients in the past, singing is the one thing I do with them most in a music therapy session.  Yes, we do talk about things…pain, family, how the song relates to them, or what makes it significant. Sometimes I can get them to play an instrument, but depending on their physical state of health, they may or may not be able to hold a small tambourine.  Talking about the songs and where and when they first heard it are also topics that may come up in conversation if the patient is able to communicate with the therapist.

Amy Clements- Cortés, PhD, PR, MTA, MT-BC examined the way music therapists’ perception on using singing with patients in hospice and/or palliative care.  Through a survey and interview process, she looked at what was done, how often and what were the goals and outcomes for those particular patients.  With feedback from 80 music therapists and interviews with 40, she determined that singing preferred songs of the patients gave the therapist a way to connect with the patient and/or their family.  Some results stated that music performed on the spot, or live, was used, but no mention of recorded music was made. Goals for palliative care patients were slightly different from those getting cancer care, however, she stressed that more research is needed to delve into the details surrounding the singing and its benefit for the patient groups mentioned above.

What I found intriguing about this study, is not only did she look at a variety of ways singing is used with these populations, but whether the singing was done just with the client or in a group, such as a choir.  Some commonalities included singing to “improve mood, to increase relaxation and increase self expression” (pp. 350 – 351). The interviews gave more insight into how the singing helped those make connections with their patients, used the soothing aspect of their voice to help a patient relax or allowed their patients to “let go of some emotions or feelings they wanted to leave behind” (p.354).

As I stated earlier, I know I use singing with my patients, encouraging them to join in not only because it is therapeutic, but because I hope that by doing so, they feel better after the session is over.  I appreciate Dr. Clements-Cortés considering this commonly used technique in music therapy and inform us on its purpose and most common uses.

For more information on music therapy, visit our website at or the American Music Therapy Association’s website at

Stephanie H. Morris, MM, MT-BC

Neurologic Music Therapy Fellow

Central Ohio Music Therapy, LLC

Clements-Cortés, A. (2017).  Singing and vocal interventions in palliative and cancer care:  Music therapists’ perceptions of usage. Journal of Music Therapy, 54(3), 2017. 336 – 361; doi 10.1093/jmt/thx010