Your Case Stories

This story is from a music therapist working in a hospice.

Open this Youtube recording of nyabinghi drumming to accompany you when you read the story.

Music and Pain

Tony was a 65-year-old Rastafarian who, on the basis of his beliefs, had refused conventional cancer treatment such as chemotherapy and radio therapy. The course of alternative treatment he had put his faith in failed and with his prostate cancer now at an advanced stage beyond treatment, he found himself on one of hospice wards awaiting death. He was experiencing severe physical pain but was adamant that he did not wish any opiates or western medical painkillers to alleviate it.

When one of his nurses told Tony one morning that there was a music therapist who visited patients he readily agreed to meet me. Later that afternoon I took a tambourine, a guitar and a small hand drum with me and arrived in his ward room where I found a thin, elderly black man; face contorted, writhing in silent agony on his bed. I immediately began playing the guitar, trying to match the intensity of his movements and mood with the intention of providing a musical focus that called his attention to the music and away from the pain.

Bob Marley drawing by

Bob Marley drawing by

Upon hearing this, Tony responded by indicating he wanted the hand drum. For the next hour the sound of improvised rhythmic grooves, Reggae rhythms and various Bob Marley songs could be heard, to the delight of staff, floating down the ward as Tony, who proved to be a consummate drummer, played himself into a state of musical transcendence---music, used therapeutically had helped him tap, into his own resources of pain management. The session ended and Tony asked for the drum to be left. As I exited, promising to return the following day, he thanked me and smiled saying he felt better….”more like me old self”. 

The next day, I returned to his room carrying two hand drums and was greeted by the same sight: Tony in agony on the bed. I quickly set up the instruments and in the space of a few minutes we had created an intense groove based, rhythmic drumming which ebbed and flowed and like the previous day’s therapy session, lasted for nearly an hour; the result the same; A welcome but temporary release from pain. Before I left, Tony told me that his friends and family would be visiting over the weekend. Knowing I would not be in the hospice, I said I would leave some more instruments and brought several large drums, tambourines and shakers to the room.

The following Monday I passed through Tony’s ward to inquire how the weekend had gone. Before reaching the room I was met by the ward sister. She informed me that Tony had died peacefully in the early hours of Sunday morning but had spent the Saturday afternoon and evening drumming and chanting with friends and family. She described what she had heard as amazing and thanked me for enabling Tony to use music in a way that had brought him relief from his pain and provided an accompaniment to his death.


For another perspective on the power of music at times of illness, have a look at this incredibly moving film about how music can restore a sense of identity, memory and being in the world.