Some health-care occupations are not aimed at making you healthy. There’s only so much that doctors, pills, and therapies can do; eventually, death comes to all of us. The hospice industry recognizes this and provides services to ease the suffering of those going through this transition. One tool in its toolbox is music, which has been found to give comfort and relief to people as they approach death. And therefore a new occupation, music thanatologist, is gaining recognition and a workforce.
The occupation may be regarded as a specialization within the larger field of music therapy. However, music thanatologists now have their own professional association with its own standards for certification, and they may choose not to seek certification as music therapists. (It’s not clear to me why the Music-Thanatology Association International chooses to hyphenate the names of the specialization and specialists.)
At the bedsides of people approaching death, music thanatologists play the harp and may also sing. The harp is used because it is portable; allows the player to perform melody, harmony, and counterpoint; can be accompanied by voice; and sustains notes, especially at the low end, better than smaller string instruments such as the guitar. I suppose a Casio keyboard would fit all of these criteria, but the natural ring of acoustic strings is surely more soothing than electronic tones. Patients and their families have been known to compare music thanatologists to angels, but I have noticed that practitioners avoid making this association.
The MTAI professional association says that the musical selections chosen are “quiet, restful, and meditative” and that they tend to be mostly those “unassociated with particular memories, thoughts or feelings.” Practitioners are trained to select “rhythm, pacing, volume, and tone” in response to the patient’s condition, changing as the patient’s condition changes.
Insurance companies are unlikely to pay for this service, and the practitioners do not accept tips, as a subway busker might. Instead, they are usually compensated by a hospice organization or by the health-care facility. The income is modest compared to some other therapy occupations, probably less than $30,000 a year, so people who do this for a living are mostly motivated by the satisfactions of helping dying patients and their families. Practitioners often say that the work is as spiritual as it is clinical.
The training program covers health issues as well as instruction in harp and voice performance. It is very different from the program at a music conservatory. It typically takes two years and includes an internship. Students must provide their own harps.
On YouTube, here and here and here, you can view music thanatologists performing and discussing their work. You can also read about the field in Music at the End of Life: Easing the Pain andPreparing the Passage, by Jennifer L. Hollis.