Music therapist Lucy Thomas (above right), pictured with Karen Magill in the palliative care patient lounge at St. Paul’s

Soothing with song: How music therapy is contributing to palliative care

Promise Magazine: Fall 2017

By Michelle Hopkins | Photography by Jeff Topham

Karen Magill remembers watching her mother’s face radiate joy when music therapist Lucy Thomas played one of her 79-year-old mom’s favourite songs by country singer Trace Adkins.

“Mom loved music and she and dad would often dance together,” says Magill. “So, when Lucy would play the guitar and sing to mom, she would feel uplifted and have this beautiful look on her face. Peaceful, really,” says Magill. “The music took her away from her pain momentarily.”

Music therapy is not new; in fact, it has been used for years across North America to provide a variety of touchstones – social, physical, emotional, spiritual and psychological – for patients in end-of-life care. “Quite often during the singing of a song, one that has been a part of a family’s past, it retrieves great memories and evokes smiles for everyone, while transporting patients to another place and time,” explains Leah Rosling, music therapist and professional practice leader for music therapy at Providence Health Care (PHC).

Thomas, Rosling and the several other music therapists at PHC visit patients and residents weekly, with guitars strapped to their backs and a combination of violins, percussion instruments and songbooks in their arms. Not restricted to the palliative care wing at St. Paul’s, music therapists can be referred to patients and residents at all PHC sites.

“Music therapy is effective across so many different areas. Through the Palliative Outreach Consult Team, I spend time with patients throughout St. Paul’s Hospital. The music therapy team also spends time at the PHC residential care homes and mental health units,” says Thomas.

Music therapy’s many benefits

There is a body of evidence that suggests music therapy can contribute to palliative care in a host of ways. It helps alleviate isolation, loneliness and boredom. It can help patients and residents deal with emotional issues, such as depression, anxiety, fear, frustration and anger, as well as physical pain and shortness of breath. “It can also support them spiritually,” adds Thomas.

Thomas and Rosling are among a growing number of music therapists accredited by the Canadian Association for Music Therapy. Both graduated from university with four- year degrees in music therapy, along with a six-month clinical internship. Using music as a primary tool in palliative care, they employ methods such as songwriting, storytelling, guided imagery and music, lyric analysis, singing, instrument playing and music therapy relaxation techniques, paired with verbal counselling, to enhance the quality of life for terminally ill patients, residents and their families.

“There is a lot of research to show that during medical procedures, music therapy can be very effective in pain management,” says Thomas. “Many of my patients have told me how powerful it can be.” Rosling agrees and adds: “The music helps them relax and they become less agitated when the music’s playing.” As music therapists, both are trained in how to read body language and emotions and to respond to those cues.

“We usually approach a patient or resident and get to know who they are, where they are from and what genre of music they love,” explains Thomas, noting that there is no limit to the time they spend with a patient. “It is always in their control. That’s very empowering in a time when they have little choice left.”

A powerful component of holistic healing

At the end of Willi Magill’s life, her daughter Karen was grateful for the pleasure music therapy brought to her mother as she lay dying of stomach cancer. “My last memory of my mom was of Lucy playing her guitar to mom’s breathing pattern,” she recalls. “It was so soothing to watch mom’s breathing become less laboured.”

Music therapy doesn’t end there. Rosling says it can also benefit family members. “Music therapy has a way of bringing family members together to express their love, loss and grief in a container that holds so much beauty,” says Rosling. “A skilled music therapist can bring people together in a tender, moving way.”

Give now to support programs like this at