What’s Music Thanatology’s Role in End-of-Life Care?


Contrary to what you might think, music thanatology is a form of palliative care that brings together music, voice, and medicine to help a dying person’s transition from life to death. Music thanatology in particular uses the harp and voice to usher in death in a smoother fashion.

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It is a soothing way to provide spiritual peace to both the person who's dying, the family, and to the caregivers. The combination of the different types of treatment serves the patient from a medical, emotional, and spiritual standpoint.

Music thanatology is a prescriptive form of spiritual care for the dying. By using sound and soft music, it helps to ease any emotional and spiritual pain a dying person may feel as the end of their life nears.

Music thanatology also works together with medicine, by playing music when a person is dying is a way of healing and helping with the transition from life to death. Read on to learn more about this unique form of palliative care.

What’s a Music Thanatologist?

A music thanatologist is a person who’s skilled and learned in the field of music first and foremost. The “thanatology” portion comes from the specific field of study in death and dying. A “music thanatologist” as such, is a person who has studied and mastered the harp, and has also studied death and dying.

In order to become a certified music thanatologist, a person must hold a varying degree of competencies that include not only the appropriate educational background, but also competencies in the following areas: personal, musical, medical, clinical, thanatological, and professional competencies that include the harp and voice.

Difference between a music thanatologist and a music therapist

The main differences between a music thanatologist and a music therapist is that a music thanatologist uses harp and voice to tend to the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of the dying.  A music therapist specializes in using music to heal individuals with physical and mental health issues, those who are rehabilitating or who have special needs. 

A music therapist is held to a higher educational standard but is not necessarily trained as a music thanatologist. Most are not. The requirements to become a music therapist include holding a bachelor’s degree in music therapy with a clinical training internship, a master’s or doctoral degree in music therapy. 

A music thanatologist may also undergo a 900-hour training curriculum in order to become certified in their field of specialty. However, their musical background is specific to the harp and voice in providing their care and treatment to those who are dying. There’s no defined advanced degree required in becoming a music thanatologist.

What Does a Music Thanatologist Do?

A music thanatologist’s main work consists of ushering the dying through the death process. They help with the transition from life to death, and bring comfort, peace, and spiritual care to those faced with death, their families, and caregivers. They have other important duties and roles within the overall care of the patient. 

A music thanatologist can be responsible for many of the following:

  • Providing palliative care that brings together music and medicine in end-of-life care
  • Using the harp and voice
  • Using music prescriptively to ease a patient’s symptoms 
  • Helping alleviate pain
  • Calming agitation
  • Easing restlessness
  • Helping with sleeplessness
  • Regulating breathing
  • Helping control the experiencing of emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, and grief

In addition, their most common tasks can include unique vocal sounds and harp melodies to make this integral moment easier to manage. Below are some of the following specific duties they may perform.

1. Tending to the needs of the dying

Music thanatologists provide palliative medical care in the form of prescriptive music. They use the harp and voice to tend to the needs of the dying during their last moments of life. They also help the families and caregivers cope with loss and alleviate the anxiety associated with the dying process. The music is used deliberately like medicine in providing care to those undergoing this experience. 

The harp is an instrument of choice, but not the only one used. It is the chosen type of instrument because a harp can deliver multiple notes simultaneously, similarly to a piano or organ. By contrast, other instruments such as a flute or oboe can only deliver one note at a time. In order to deliver end-of-life prescriptive music, the instrument must be capable of sounding multiple notes at the same time. Because the harp is easy to transport and has the required capabilities, it’s the one most often used in providing this type of therapy.

The use of voice in conjunction with the harp helps mimic the patient’s dying rhythms. A music thanatologist might incorporate a low-decibel humming to the harp’s music, a methodological use of vocal rhythm, or staccato to soothe the dying. 

2. Providing comfort care

A music thanatologist provides comfort care in tending to the needs of the dying. Music vigils for the benefit of the patient and their family are held during the last moments of life. A music vigil is a cycle of prescriptive music delivered to the bedside of the dying patient. 

Usually, one or two music thanatologists will work together to provide nonstop musical care during the last hours of a dying person’s life. There are different types of grief that a person experiences as they are reaching the end of their life. Prescriptive music helps ease the stress and anxiety brought on by these feelings of grief and sorrow. 

3. Playing to the rhythm of the dying  

A unique feature of music thanatology is to play musical tones to the rhythm of the dying person’s breath instead of familiar music played for entertainment. The prescriptive portion of the music thanatologist’s job is to match the rhythms and flow of the patient’s breath in order to bring peace and calm to the dying and their families. The music changes as the breathing changes. 

4. Ushering in death

One of the most significant duties of a music thanatologist is to help the dying patient usher in death. This is done through the use of musical vigil as described above where a concentrated effort is made at the last moments of life to bring peace and calm to the dying person, their family, and caregivers.

The vigil tends to decrease elevated emotions of anxiety, fear, anger, grief, and sadness. It also helps the family to say goodbye to a dying loved one

How Do You Become a Music Thanatologist?

Becoming a music thanatologist is much the same as becoming a grief counselor with the added component of musical competencies. One of the first requirements is to have a love and appreciation of human life and the dying process. Being comfortable around death and dying is a must in this field. You must also have a strong constitution and not become squeamish or afraid of the dying. 

Once you recognize yourself as a good candidate as a thanatologist, the next steps are to seek education and licensure through a training program specifically geared toward the professional training of persons with an interest in serving the needs of the dying with prescriptive music. You can obtain training for Music-Thanatology is the continuing education program for Music-Thanatology at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, or with the Art of Dying Institute in New York City.

Once your training is complete, you can seek certification through the Music-Thanatology Association International (MTAI).

The general guidelines for becoming a music thanatologist can be found below:

Step 1: Enter into a training program

A typical course of training for a music thanatologist consists of a one to two-year training program such as the Chalice of Repose Project, of which many current music-thanatologists have graduated from. Other schools will offer modalities in music-thanatology as part of a continued education program in music.

Not all training programs require an academic degree. You will, however, have to demonstrate a mastery of your musical instrument and other competencies related to the field of thanatology.

Step 2: Master the harp

The musical instrument of choice in the musical thanatology programs offered is the harp. The instrument is chosen because of its ability to deliver multiple tones of music to mimic the differing sounds of approaching death. 

Most programs will test your skill and knowledge prior to accepting you into a certification program. If you have yet to master this instrument, the chances of being accepted into any of the programs are slim unless you’re entering into an area of study focused mainly on musical theory versus performance.

Step 3: Learn about death and dying

Being an expert harpist is not enough to garner you the title of music thanatologist. You will need to undergo an in-depth study of death and dying in any of the accredited thanatology programs available.

If you are new to this field, start with obtaining a basic understanding of what it means to be a thanatologist. From there you can participate in any one of the seminars presented by associations such as the Art of Dying Institute, the International Harp Therapy Program, or Music Thanatology Association International. 

Step 4: Get certified

The widely recognized Music-Thanatology Association International certification program requires extensive study and knowledge of the end-of-life process and experience.

There’s no undergraduate degree required, but it’s encouraged in most of the programs offered. You should expect to undergo 600 hours of classroom training, 300 hours of clinical practice, fieldwork, and internship, followed by a minimum of 50 supervised vigils.

Music as Palliative Care 

Music thanatology brings together all aspects of palliative care to provide comfort care to those who are dying, their families, and caregivers.

Understanding the dying process and how music can alleviate the stress and anxiety associated with this transition will make this experience easier to undergo for those suffering the onset of death. 


  1. Hollis, Jennifer. “For the Dying, Music Can Be Magic.” Health, Next Avenue, 22 October 2018, www.nextavenue.org/music-dying.
  2. “Art of Dying Institute: Integrative Thanatology Certificate – A Death Education Program.” New York Open Center, New York Open Center, www.opencenter.org/thanatology.
  3. “Certification.” Music-Thanatology Association International. mtai.org/certification/
  4. “Our Motto.” About, The International Harp Therapy Association - USA Affiliate, www.harptherapyusa.com/about.html
  5. “Overview of Offerings.” Chalice of Repose Project, Inc. 23 May 2017. chaliceofrepose.org/ed-overview/

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