Music reaches into the souls of the ill and dying

Music reaches into the souls of the ill and dying. Soft yet powerful comfort can be transported that way. It’s a short cut that music therapist Jenni Sawell is very familiar with. As a harpist who plays for weddings, funerals and special events, she’s expanding her audience to include the dying.

Jenni recently played her harp and spoke to an excited group of visionaries from Sydney’s South Western Sydney Local Health District, who want to bring the healing power of the arts into hospital rooms and other community based medical settings.

“It is our belief that arts and creativity move minds, bodies and spirits towards sustaining healthy lives,” the authors said in the vision statement of their strategic plan.

Chords from Jenni’s harp wafted up into the deep recesses of the Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre where she was showing us just how this can work. You could see busy professionals unwind, knots in shoulders usually stooped over computers release, and tension in people’s faces soften.

“I can feel the music,” residents of an aged care centre told her recently.

Her harp delivers soft, lilting and gentle tunes. She also plays as she walks through the palliative care wards at Liverpool Hospital, sometimes settling beside a patient and staying a little longer.

Jenni explained how her music works, letting the music tell the main story but complementing it with a word picture.

Jenni Sawell is a therapeutic musician

A sob releases pain

“A family gathered around their father catches my eye. He is suffering from severe motor neurone disease.”

Jenni describes how she moves up close to him so he can watch as she plucks at and strums the harp. He becomes aware of her, then involved in the music. She has become good at working out when a patient wants more time listening to the harp. Sometimes, but not always, someone uses words to ask for more. Sometimes a big smile tells her or someone beckons her forward.

“He is listening deeply. I switch from the major key to the minor key. He sobs loudly. It’s okay, he needs this release.

“I hold him there just for a moment then gently take him back to the major. I hope my music gave him something – permission to let go.

“The pain seems to go. For a moment there is no pain, there is peace.”

For the South Western Sydney Health and Arts Strategic Plan 2018-23, go to:

For music in palliative care, “Music Therapy in palliative care: current perspectives” go to:

For a more recent study: Music therapy services in paediatric oncology: a national clinical practice review, go to:

To contact Jenni Sawell, therapeutic harpist, teacher and performer, email

Watch her perform at Christmas in Liverpool Hospital here.

To find out about a project involving writing and grief, go to:

3 thoughts on “Music reaches into the souls of the ill and dying”

  1. I think I’d like to go out listening to a harp. Or a concert pianist.

  2. my daughter arranged for a harpist to play in the hospital room when my son was on life support, with only days to live. In the midst of tragedy, it soothed my soul.

    • Thank you JoAnn. Others have said similar things – it’s wonderful that music has such a powerful impact. The harp is particularly beautiful – ideal for such a situation.

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