From Chopin to Christina Aguilera: how music therapy helps people with a terminal illness

Music therapist Naomi Hughes (pictured below centre) is taking part in a research project at the Marie Curie Hospice, Belfast looking at how music therapy can benefit people with a terminal illness.

Music therapist Naomi Hughes (centre)

When people are at the end of their lives, it can be very difficult to talk. Music can be a way for people to communicate non-verbally, especially with their families.

I work for Every Day Harmony  , Northern Ireland’s leading music therapy provider. Music therapy is an allied health profession and can help a wide range of people affected by illness and disability. It uses musical interaction, and creativity through music, to address a patient’s clinical needs – whether they are psychological, physical, emotional, cognitive or social.

The core of music therapy is the relationship between the music therapist and the client, so it’s important for me to get to know the person and find out what their needs are. In the first session, I’ll bring a piano, guitar and simple percussion instruments. I always stress that you don’t need to be musical to take part. The client can either actively play the instruments alone or with me, sing, or listen as I play. This initial session is usually a platform for addressing more meaningful topics for the client, which can be explored through music.

Emotional outlet

If their family is present, I’ll ask if they have a special song they might sing together. If they’re feeling anxious, or finding it difficult to relax, I might suggest using relaxation techniques. Or they may need a distraction from their pain, so I might offer them an instrument to play or sing with them. Patients can play to music already known to them, or play spontaneously and the therapist uses their musical skills to support them in this form of expression.

Everyone has their own unique taste in music. It’s part of who we are. There’s been such a wide range of suggestions in the hospice: from classical music, such as Chopin, to traditional Irish music, to Christina Aguilera! I try and incorporate each person’s musical tastes alongside the approach that will best meet their needs.

We had a patient who was very ill and quite demotivated and anxious. In a session where we were using a lively Christina Aguilera song, the client was playing the tambour, a big drum, which takes a lot of energy. By the end of the session, the client was feeling physically drained, but it had offered them an important emotional and physical outlet.

Music therapy benefits

I also help clients create a legacy using music. This could involve supporting them to write a song for their family. I help them record it and put it on a CD so their family can keep it. This can give the client a sense of purpose and a focus: they’re still giving something of themselves.

I’ve learned so much from my clients. Everyone has so much to give, right up until the end, and it’s a privilege to be able to work with them at such an important time.

We’re currently conducting research, led by Queen’s University, at the Marie Curie Hospice, Belfast to determine the benefits of music therapy to people at the end of their lives. Fifty-two patients at the hospice are taking part. Half will receive six music therapy sessions over three weeks, as well as standard palliative care. The other half will receive standard palliative care (although they will also be offered up to two sessions of music therapy once the research period has finished). It’s a feasibility study, with a view to undertaking a larger multi-site trial across the UK later next year.

Marie Curie Hospices offer many different complementary therapy services, both for people staying in the hospice and those coming in for the day. Find out more about our hospices.