My journey into music therapy: Palliative care

The impact of music in health



Natasha Lin is a Melbourne concert pianist who is training in a Master in Music Therapy. This is the second story in her series about music and health. Natasha has spent professional placements in a Special Development School, working with young people with disabilities; at a major hospital in Geriatric and Rehabilitation Departments; and in a hospital’s Palliative Care and Oncology Unit. Her supervisor is an internationally respected Registered Music Therapist.

Themes in this story may be sensitive for some readers. If you would like to talk to someone, we recommend visiting Headspace.


For the past couple of months, I spent an average of 16 hours per week working with patients diagnosed with terminal illnesses or cancers.

Depending on their conditions, they are sometimes offered beds at the Palliative Care hospice at which I spent the majority of my time. Towards the middle of my placement, I started to take on individual workloads. I offered live piano performance of music that is meaningful to the people in the hospice, and for their family members and friends who were also coping with the difficult situation.

It was hard not to notice the photographs that adorn the rooms; memories captured of their former lives before entering the hospice. It was a stark reminder that they are individual souls going through the difficulties of processing life-shattering news. Music is a way to alleviate their pain and suffering; a way to offer solace and, perhaps, a potential space to remind them of their identities and individuality beyond the scope of the illness.

It was a Thursday afternoon and, looking at the list of patients, I thought I could squeeze in seeing one more patient before my day ended. I wheeled the trolley of piano books and the digital piano along the side of the hallway, and stopped to check the room number. I instinctively thought that perhaps I could bring in a harp to the patient today, and hoisted the little harp in its bag on my shoulder. I knocked on the door, waited – I heard a woman’s voice – and walked in.

After introducing myself and the music therapy services that were offered to her, she and her husband were very curious about this black bag I had on me. I took out the harp, and strummed the strings. Their faces lit up, and they gasped at the beauty and delicacy of the instrument. I offered the harp to her, and watched as she gently strummed the strings, softly humming. Her husband was watching her, and I could see a glint of a tear in the corner of his eye. She expressed that never had she held a harp, and couldn’t believe that she could still experience new things at this stage in her life.

Her husband decided to photograph and film this experience on his phone, and was already quickly sending the files to their children and some friends as the session progressed.

She then told me that her family are great music lovers, and that she recently discovered a song that spoke truth and meaning to her as she grappled with her diagnosis and prognosis. I offered to play her this song, and her response further confirmed to me that the music held significant meaning for her. I wheeled in the digital piano, and began to play and sing. At this stage, she joined in singing whilst strumming the harp. The song was played repeatedly as tears were flowing down her cheeks, and at times she was unable to get the words out. The more she sang, the louder her voice was, as if she was releasing the energy that was building up inside her.

The playing eventually came to an end, and there was a moment of silence. She then spoke, and said that she had never sung in front of others before. All this time, her husband was filming the experience, and he later expressed his gratitude in allowing this moment to happen so their children can see their mum still ‘living life’.

That was one of a handful of very significant moments in my experience at the Palliative Care hospice. I had other experiences that moved me similarly; I played music for a patient who was in his last days. He was unable to open his eyes or talk, but communicated through facial expressions and rate of breath. Other patients who took part in music therapy were undergoing procedural support (changing bandages, doing simple check-ups); and I collaborated with a music producer who is dear to me – together we created a CD of soundscapes to help reduce a patient’s anxiety.

With the range of people that were there, I have shared music by Doris Day, Billy Joel, Johnny Cash, Bach, Mozart, and Satie, just to name a few. Some just wanted purely classical music, and others from different genres. The common factor was that they requested music that spoke most to them; that helped associate them with a memory, a time in their life, their identity of who they are, beyond the four walls in which they were staying.

I was also able to appreciate that music therapy isn’t just all about being able to play guitar. My training as a pianist has helped me realise that the aesthetics of music is also greatly appreciated, as I was able to use my piano playing skills for this placement.

Most importantly, I have realised the great power of music as an agent for community. This is the community between people, as a platform for them to express themselves and to experience perhaps a shared moment, feeling and mood. The music can help you escape that pain as the nurse changes your weeping bandages, to bring you a moment of solace as you remember the first time you heard this music, with whom, where, when…

Likewise, this music can help the same nurse who has hardly had any break in her shift, and this piece of music being played was able to ease the stress that is building up in her. The music being played for one patient can be similarly shared by another in the same room, who happens also to like the composer. From this discovery, a moment of friendship can be shared between the two as the music enables this to occur in this space.

The music can also offer a moment of reprise for the family members, who have tirelessly stayed by the side of their loved ones, to allow them to experience relaxation and potentially offer them a moment to be coaxed into sleep.

This is the second blog in Natasha Lin’s My journey into music therapy series. We look forward to more of Natasha’s experiences showing us the value and impact of music on health.

Have you had an experience with music therapy you’d like to share? Or do you have a question Natasha can help answer?


For mental health support, visit Headspace.

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