Woman's hands playing harp


Music thanatology is a specialized practice of playing harp music for the dying. A practitioner of the art explains how there is also science to it as well, and a woman whose family has used it describes her experience.

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  • Betsy Haraf, family member who witnessed thanotology vigil
  • Tony Pederson, certified music thanotologist, Journeycare, Northbrook, IL and President, Music Thanatology Association International

Links for more information:


Music for the dying and grieving

Nancy Benson: Betsy Haraf has been a musician all her adult life, but when her mother was offered a music thanatology vigil when she was in hospice care, Haraf had no idea what they were talking about.
Betsy Haraf: Never even hear the term before! They had to spell it out for me; I didn’t even know what it was.

Tony Pederson: Thanatology is really the study of death and dying and generally it’s an anthropological field and a lot of times people are looking at death and dying practices, burial practices. Music Thanatology is a little different in that, we’re focused on the dying process and what’s happening physically as a person and their body declines. But also, cognitively and emotionally and spiritually it’s a larger process at work and the role of the music thanatologist is to bring the music in support of that end of life process.

Benson: That’s Tony Pederson, certified music thanatologist with Journeycare in Northbrook, Illinois and President of Music Thanatology’s Associate International.

Pederson: Most of my colleagues are employed by hospices or hospital systems or in private practice and they’re getting called as end of life approaches and they’re being called in for acute pain and symptom management issues, are I think some of the best uses of this music at the bedside. So people having pain or trouble breathing or restlessness but then also there’s those other aspects of the person that might be addressed. So if somebody’s got spiritual pain, no amount of morphine is gonna address that and music is something that addresses the whole person. It also addresses the family system around them or even the care givers have their own grief that they have to process through and the music can provide a context for that happen too.

Benson: Music thanatologists play a small wooden harp and may also sing or calm during a music thanatology vigil. Pederson says, music thanatology is similar in some ways to music therapy – both disciplines use music but in different ways. Pederson describes how a music therapist might use a familiar tune with a patient.

Pederson: The music helps people access emotions because it bypasses those higher cognitive centers of our brains and it gets into the limbic system, the seat of our emotions. So when you hear that old song you automatically remember the feeling of when you heard the song before. A few seconds later you remember the name of the song and who wrote that and all that sort of technical stuff, but the feeling comes right away.

Benson: Music thanatology on the other hand doesn’t tap into what might be familiar to the patient.

Pederson: The main focus of music thanatology is to connect what we’re doing musically with what’s going on physically for the patient. So, like the pace of someone’s breathing is very informative for me about how I should pace the music. Maybe one example, like if I see that lung cancer patient and they’re breathing 48 breaths a minute and they’re going, <labored exhaling> well there’s a steadiness to that rhythm. So, musically I might meet them with some metered regularity of rhythm.

(Music plays as Pederson exhales to the rhythm)

Pederson: And as somebody’s approaching their last hours or days, the rhythms of the body are often losing their regularity so having this live, clinically focused, music at the bedside allows for them to drop out of regularity and the music can move away from that metered rhythmical approach and become a little more free flowing if that’s what’s going on in the body.

Benson: Music thanatology is still in its infancy even though it’s rooted in the medical practices of ancient Greece. The modern field can be traced to the early 1970’s when Harpist and composer Therese Schroeder Sheker founded the ‘Chalice of Repose Project’ to educate, train and certify music thanatologists.

Pederson: Training to be a music thanatologist is a little bit like a combination of first year med school and music school and there has to be an aspect of inner-development and preparation so a little bit of like going through seminary I would imagine. Because, we have to be prepared to deal with some very difficult situations and to be a coherent, useful, presence.

Benson: Pederson has been a music thanatologist for 20 years and has visited thousands of patients. He says, every music vigil is different, but his favourite kind is where the family is very present to what’s happening. The kind Haraf experienced with her mother.

Haraf: It just was so peaceful and beautiful and I think more than anything, the family – all of us sitting around, were just so blessed to experience the time of quietness with her and a connection that just seemed a littler otherworldly. It was a time of prayer, we were all praying silently, some of us were gently weeping on our own – really hard to explain all the emotions that were going through us as we listened to this incredibly beautiful music while my mother was laying there.

Benson: Death is a visitor in everyone’s life when a friend or family member passes on. Some of us may be at our loved ones bedside as she takes her final breathe. End of life scenarios are as different from one another as the people involved, but one thing is consistent from bedside to bedside – our emotions. Live, soothing, harp music at such a time can help ease the transition from life to death for both the living and the dying.

Pederson: My goal – as I walk in and sit down and explain a little bit what I do to the patient, whether they can respond or not and to the family – is to just establish a connection. It doesn’t work if I have some idea about a direction that they need to go and I try and shepherd them there, because none of us know what somebody else’s dying needs to look like. And its really the philosophy in hospice care in general is that we want to meet people where they’re at and as they are heading in certain directions, we want to be with them as they go in whatever direction they go. The deathbed is not often a pleasant place to be, but it’s an important place to be.

Benson: You can learn more about music thanatology from the Music Thanatology Association International, MTAI.org, or at ChaliceofRepose.orgn. You can find links to both by visiting our website at RadioHealthJournal.net. Our writer/producer this week is Polly Hansen. Our production direction is Sean Waldron. I’m Nancy Benson.

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