By Noah Potvin
Music and spirituality are two mediums frequently – almost ubiquitously – partnered in cultures around the world with the intention of enhancing engagement with the divine. Spiritual practices are infused with music to intensify the transpersonal components of worship, meditation, and ritual. Correspondingly, musical encounters are infused with spiritually-based beliefs and practices to provide individuals connections with themselves and others in uniquely powerful ways.
For many, this easy, reciprocal flow from music to spirituality may come as no surprise: both are malleable mediums responsive to the people engaging with them and the settings in which they are engaged. For instance, Amazing Grace performed at a funeral in a church with a large congregation might be led with a louder volume, increased pressure, and heightened resonance to match the congregation’s energy as they worship through song. In contrast, Amazing Grace performed bedside in a hospital room with a patient and caregivers might embody quieter, more prayerful qualities intending to comfortingly hold the patient in their depleted physical state and engender intimate musical sharing.
As music and spirituality intertwine, their boundaries become increasingly fluid to the point that distinguishing between one and the other becomes trivial. To be spiritual is to be musical, and to be musical is to be spiritual.
A similar malleability is also present in individuals’ health journeys. Objective characteristics of health – such as symptom acuity/chronicity; treatment dosage and frequency; and curative versus palliative outcomes – are subjectively experienced in response to the individual’s values, morals, and disease trajectory. For instance, one person’s 6 out of 10 pain is their daily baseline and thus easily managed, while another’s 6 out of 10 pain is breakthrough and requires treatment. Similarly, one person may prioritize the improved quality of life offered by palliative care while another may prioritize the potential increased longevity offered by curative treatments.
These dynamic, emergent qualities of music, spirituality, and health are a result of each being culturally situated phenomena. That is, the manner in which music, spirituality, and health are conceptualized and engaged with is directly informed by the distinct cultures in which they manifest. This leads to a fraught but important question: If music, spirituality, and health are each unto themselves complex phenomena derived from cultural factors, how do all three interact when they intersect in a singular encounter?
Board-certified music therapists frequently navigate this encounter in hospice. Hospice is a philosophy of care that prioritizes quality of life with six months or less to live, putting critical health issues at the forefront with limited time to facilitate resolution and closure. At such a juncture, spirituality can be a critical resource for patients and families who are simultaneously managing in the moment and preparing for the future. The type of resource spirituality can become (e.g., comfort in ritual, strength from scripture or peace through prayer/meditation/worship) is determined by the specific faith traditions of the patient – not just an identified denomination but the explicit experiences patients engaged in as part of their spiritual practice.
Music therapists assess those faith traditions for each patient and, coupled with a similar assessment of patients’ music traditions, craft music experiences that help patients become aware of and engage with their spiritually-based resources. These culturally informed clinical music processes interweave music, spirituality, and health in a way that affords patients agency in dictating the circumstances of their death. Yet, contemporary discussions in the music therapy literature have tended to frame spirituality from such a broad and generic stance that it becomes difficult for music therapists to locate spiritually-based resources in patients.
To address this limitation, my co-author (Cathleen Flynn) and I recently authored a paper that explored a specific culturally informed music, spiritual, and health intersection: music therapy for Christian patients and caregivers during imminent death. Using this intersection as a foundation, we developed a theoretical model positioning music therapy as a psychospiritual ministry providing patients and caregivers access to a faith-based resource – the Holy Spirit – that assists with transcendence as end-of-life transitions neared.
Transcendence, a difficult concept to lock down, is a movement beyond the typical, readily accessible experiences that define our day-to-day to experience the self and other in new ways that push beyond our known thresholds. For Christian patients who are imminently dying, that transcendence is vertical, an upward trajectory that moves them closer to an integration with the divine as they move beyond the corporeal. For Christian caregivers, that transcendence is horizontal, an outward trajectory that moves them closer to mortal support structures that assist in their transition to bereavement. The Holy Spirit, an intermediary between the mortal and divine, is the faith-based avenue through which these different but concomitant transcendences occur. From this vantage point, the music therapist assumes a ministerial role, constructing dynamic music experiences that facilitate interactions with the Holy Spirit promoting patient and caregiver transcendence.
Such explicit framing is ethically fraught. First, we do not argue that adopting a Christian lens is the “only” way or the “correct” way for music therapy to be practiced in hospice; rather, we introduce this theoretical model as a broad template for conducting spiritual assessments of patients from diverse traditions and beliefs. Second, this is a person-centered model wherein any implementation of Christian theology into music therapy processes is cued by the patient rather than introduced by the music therapist; this is an essential aspect as it avoids the perception that music therapists might leverage privilege to proselytize to patients. Third, there are numerous avenues for ethical and effective clinical support of Christian patients and families at the end of life, and this model is not meant to be a linear prescription; rather, it is an exploratory avenue that opens a multitude of additional doorways for providing psychospiritual care.
As the baby boomer generation continues to advance in age, it will be increasingly important that healthcare systems are well positioned to provide comprehensive end-of-life care addressing mind, body, and spirit as equal partners in whole-person health. Music and spirituality continue to be important day-to-day aspects for many people, and exploring diverse permutations of music, spirituality, and health intersections can be an important contribution to this pursuit of the good death.
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