Jan. 1 -- THURSDAY, Dec. 31 (HealthDay News) -- Music therapy is used to help Alzheimer's patients remember and autistic children calm down. Now, a University of Alabama student is using her voice and guitar to comfort dying patients in hospice.
Families gathered around the bedside of a dying loved one often request hymns, such as "Amazing Grace," while others ask for favorite classic rock songs, such as songs by the Beatles, that evoke happier moments, said Sarah Pitts, a senior majoring in music therapy.
"I want to be with people when they need someone to provide them with some type of comfort," Pitts said. She recently played for an older woman who was just hours from death. Gradually, the woman's breathing began to slow. Her family gathered around to say their goodbyes. "The family later said hearing the songs she liked made things a little bit better."
Music therapy is about more than playing pleasant music, said Dena Register, an associate professor of music therapy at the University of Kansas who has also worked in hospice. Instead, it's aimed at improving a patient's quality of life, using music as the medium.
"We are not teaching people how to play the guitar or the piano, or singing just to entertain," Register said. "There is always a more targeted goal. In hospice care, it can be any number of things: pain management, to repair relationships or to help a patient express their wishes to family and friends."
An increasing body of research is providing evidence of the power of music. A 2007 study found music therapy dramatically improved the mental and physical condition of patients receiving palliative care.
In the study, some 200 patients aged 24 to 87 with chronic or advanced illnesses, such as cancer, pain disorders, AIDS and sickle cell disease, received music therapy sessions, in which they were able to choose the type of music they wanted to hear played on a keyboard.
Physical and psychological tests done before and after the sessions found that music therapy decreased patient anxiety, pain and shortness of breath. More than 80 percent of the patients said the music improved their mood, as well as that of their family members, according to the study by researchers at the Cleveland Music School Settlement.