What is a Therapeutic Musician?

Some of the oldest Hospices in Europe date back to the year 1000. Created by physician-monks and nuns, these were the world’s first hospitals and health care systems. Their activities are preserved in a library of records called the ars moriendi, or the art of dying. At the end of life, the caregiver’s role was to find a unique way to relieve a particular person’s struggles and fears. In the sacred art of dying, the traditional belief is that the creation of a total environment is necessary for the dying to do their inner work peacefully. Therapeutic music was one of the most primal and powerful tools to support persons in transition. 

A thousand years ago, the monks at Cluny in France developed elegant care-giving practices using different modes of music corresponding to different human moods. Recent years have witnessed a renaissance in the field of music thanatology, or the therapeutic use of music at the time of death. Whether the needs are physical, emotional, or spiritual, certain kinds of music seem to provide a sacred and safe container for the work of healing before transition. [Adapted from The American Book of Dying: Lessons in Healing Spiritual Pain by Richard F. Groves and Henriette Anne Klauser, Berkeley, California: Celestial Arts, 2005.]

However, today’s therapeutic musician does more than comfort the dying. “The practice of the therapeutic musician is to use the intrinsic healing elements of live music and sound to provide an environment conducive to the human healing process.” [National Standards Board for Therapeutic Musicians website home page at http://nsbtm.org]

“Therapeutic music is live acoustic music, played or sung, and specifically tailored to the patient’s immediate need. It is an art based on the science of sound.” [http://nsbtm.org/faq] Calming an agitated infant, accompanying a mother in the birth process, or helping a dementia patient reconnect with the present are just as important functions as is comforting the dying patient. 

Since the inception of the therapeutic music field in the early 1990s, hundreds of graduates have completed training and are working in a variety of health care situations. Fortunately, an increasing number of health care facility administrators recognize the benefits that therapeutic music brings to their patients.

(See this article for more information about Therapeutic Musician Training Programs)