The sound of comfort

Peter Roberts, Australia’s first and only music thanatologist, speaks to AAA about the practice of playing the harp at the bedside of critically ill and dying patients.

Peter Roberts
Peter Roberts


At 48, leaving behind a successful career in Australia, Peter Roberts uprooted his family and relocated to the sleepy town of Missoula in the American West to study the little-known field of music thanatology. Now, some 19 years later he tells AAA he has no regrets. 

On the phone from Geelong Peter Roberts is explaining the musical qualities of Gregorian chant.

Roberts is a certified music thanatologist, the first and still the only one in Australia.

Originally a sub-speciality of palliative care, music thanatology is the practice of playing the harp at the bedside of critically ill and dying patients to address their physical, spiritual and emotional needs.

While the US remains the training hub for this specialty, its graduates work in various parts of the world including England, Japan, Israel, Scotland and the Netherlands.

By observing a person’s respiration and heart rate, the prescriptive music is tailored to the individual to calm breathing, ease agitation and anxiety.

“Through the music what I try to do is echo back the circumstance that I see,” he says. “I’m not there to entertain or to try to cheer someone up, but if there is sadness there I’ll play something that could be quite sad. It’s about them feeling like someone understands them, and that can be quite powerful.”

Roberts says he uses a combination of harp, voice and silence to offer people a sense of comfort and calm at times when they are most vulnerable. “For example, with ancient chant, it is not broken up into patterns of time so I can use that to my advantage to follow a person’s breathing and draw them into the music. I can pause. The person takes a breath, and then I can continue playing,” he says.

Beyond language

In times of significant distress and fear, Roberts says music often comforts where words fail. “Everybody understands the power of music. Music can reach people in a really beautiful, deep place and that can be an enormous consolation,” he says.

“It’s beyond medication, beyond language. How on earth are you going to comfort someone who has lost a leg? This is where the music comes in, if they allow it in.”

Since his training in the US, Roberts has expanded the practice to include not only terminally ill patients but also premature babies, older patients recovering from major surgery and those with serious psychiatric illness.

Roberts is currently on staff at St John of God Hospital in Geelong and contracts to the Palliative Care Unit at Barwon Health’s McKellar Centre. The rest of his time is spent playing for people in the community and residents in aged care facilities through his charity, the Institute of Music and Medicine.

“Setting up the charity enables me to go wherever I like. I’m reimbursed for my time but the person is never charged.  I can go to someone’s home, to a nursing home; I’ve played for people with psychiatric issues. It’s something that can be taken easily to various places,” he says.

"It's beyond medication, " says Peter.
“It’s beyond medication,  beyond language,” Roberts says of thanatology.

Spiritual and physical dimensions

In 2005 Deakin University studied the effects of his work on premature babies and documented the positive physiological impact of the live music vigils on the babies’ oxygen saturation levels and heart rate.

End of life patients in the Deakin University research also reported feeling soothed and relaxed by the music. Their breathing slowed and deepened and patients described an ease with their approaching death.

In addition to ancient chant, Roberts plays lullabies, hymns and some original pieces he has written himself. However the majority of the pieces are unfamiliar to his audience to avoid any emotional connection with the music. “A music therapist would take advantage of that connection, but for me the music holds a different purpose,” he says.

From music to silence

Roberts comments that after two or three music vigils, words have often completely fallen away. “When they find that peacefulness, from there people can either let go or find a sense of courage and comfort. It’s wonderful work. It has kept me going for a long time – despite all the odds.”

A series of stories describing the impact of Roberts’ work has been collected in the book The harpist and the Ferryman.

Tags: end of life, music, therapy,

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