Music at the End of Life

Laura Simpson, UCSF staff harpist, playing harp in the UCSF Medical Center lobby, Mission Bay

Hospitals are not the most relaxing places for people nearing the end of life. The ICUs, the lobbies, and the hospital wards are full of glaring bright lights, institutional noises, and tension. In this stressful environment, music can be the great equalizer. The soothing sounds can bring peace and calmness. Music can help defuse the tension felt by anxious patients and their families. Today in many of the Bay Area’s major medical centers, musicians are playing in hospital lobbies and at the bedside. “One of the hottest topics is music and the brain,” said Judith Kate Friedman, a professional songwriter who works with seniors, “Music lights up the brain more than almost any other human activity.”

Deathbed Healing

Music at the end of life is an ancient tradition that dates back to the Middle Ages. Eleventh-century Benedictine monks used music as part of their deathbed vigils, to bring comfort and healing to those who were dying.1 Those practices fell out of favor, as monasteries disappeared with the coming of the Reformation and the Industrial Age. But today, music at the end of life is making a comeback. Many Bay Area medical professionals now recognize the benefits of live music played at the bedside.

Volunteer Musicians at the Bedside

Thad Povey at Zen Hospice

Some of the Bay Area’s leading hospices now have volunteer musicians playing music for their patients.2 Thad Povey is a volunteer at San Francisco’s Zen Hospice Project. He has played guitar for hospice residents over the last four years. Today, he’s getting ready to play for Bruce Davis, a 67-year-old man with incurable brain cancer. Bruce looks weak and frail. His brain tumor has grown larger, and the cancer has metastasized. Bruce is lying in bed, barely able to move, surrounded by several friends. Although Bruce is close to death, he’s not ready to let go yet. He’s in a joyful mood and he wants to hear something familiar, like the Beach Boys, the Safaris, or Led Zeppelin. Unfortunately, Thad doesn’t know any of those songs, but he does know the Beatles’ “Blackbird.” The moment Thad starts singing the first verses, Bruce’s face lights up. It isn’t long before Bruce and his friends are singing along with Thad. One of Bruce’s friends, Jan Flatow, has known him since kindergarten, when they were growing up together in Brooklyn. “He was elated,” said Flatow, “He was so happy. It’s the work of angels. (Thad) had a wonderful effect on Bruce. He loved it. I wish there was more of it. I mean, it would be fantastic.”

Bruce Davis, Zen Hospice resident

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