For more than twenty years, registered music therapists have been supporting Peter Mac patients to alleviate physical and emotional pain and to enhance their hospital experience. Now, with the recent expansion of the Parkville Integrated Palliative Care Service and the opening of a new palliative care unit at the Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, music-assisted methods are proving more helpful than ever, reducing experiences of pain, sleeplessness and anxiety felt by patients.

A tailored service, fitted “like a glove”

When delivering a music therapy service, Senior Music Therapist, Stephan Skov, describes how he tailors each session to patients’ individual needs. Whether it be music-assisted relaxation, song writing, or listening to live music in a ward, Stephan responds to the rhythm of the room, the dynamics of the individual, and a range of subtle cues to ensure the service “fits like a glove”. To cater for the diverse cultural backgrounds and personal preferences of patients, Stephan and then team have learnt to sing in multiple languages and musical styles. From country to rock, Italian to Chinese, music therapists are constantly adding new lyrics, new tunes, and new languages to their repertoire.

Tapping into a natural musical instinct

When describing the psychosocial process of music therapy, Stephan says therapists need to tap into patients' natural musical instincts, which he believes exist in us all. “Music is universal. It moves people, whether from China or Melbourne, whether 80 years old or five.” Indeed, music has long existed as a way to deal with emotional experiences. Stephan explains that music is so deeply embedded in us that our heart rate will follow the tempo of a song. “If I am playing a song faster than your heart rate, it can elevate you. And, if a patient wants to sleep or relax, I can do that through slower rhythms.”

The power of music

Research has shown that music can trigger the release of endorphins and the “happy hormone”, oxytocin, in the brain. Stephan attests to the power of music, describing how he has seen it help patients when medication no longer can. “I am in awe of what music can do – I have seen it ease physical pain, stress, nausea, and restlessness. I see how it induces laughter, and makes things a little more bearable. It is magical.” For patients who have been in a room for many months, Stephan describes how music can help to shift that room so they’re not in it anymore.

Legacy building

For palliative patients, Peter Mac music therapists are also called on to engage patients in a legacy-building process through song writing or voice recording. Patients and families have found music to be powerful at facilitating reflection, reminiscence, the release of emotions and closure. Where interaction with patients is not possible, families have found music can fill the empty silence and bring a sense of peace and calm to the room. "If I play the right song, the right way, the family tend to laugh more, show affection more, and that reduces tension and fear in the room," Stephan says.

For more details on Music Therapy at Peter Mac, see the webpage.