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On a lighter note

Author: Ross Murray
01 March 2013

While a harp isn’t usually considered a piece of medical equipment, for musician Peter Roberts it’s an essential tool when it comes to providing comfort to palliative care patients.

As a music-thanatologist, Mr Roberts is often seen wandering hospital and hospice corridors with his harp. Music-thanatology unites music and medicine in end of life and palliative care; it helps ease physical pain, restlessness, agitation and sleeplessness. Unlike music therapy, Mr Roberts’s music requires no interaction with the patient and plays music specially tailored to the individual patient and their ailment. Typically Mr Roberts will use either the reverie or folk harp for their warmth and portability and will play to patients three or four times before they die

Mr Roberts has been widely acclaimed, writing a number of novels and appearing in the Australian media, including for the ABC, who interviewed Mr Roberts for a special edition of their Australian Story program.

In a 2005 study at Deakin University, it was shown that that music-thanatology can improve quality of life for palliative care patients. The study was compiled by both Mr Roberts and Professor Helen Cox who is, among other titles, Emeritus Professor at Deakin University and the Director of the Institute of Music in Medicine. The study found that music played to palliative care patients diminished agitation, while those who were able to respond verbally, spoke positively of the benefits.

Both Professor Cox and Mr Roberts have collaborated once again to release their newest book The Harp and the Ferryman.

In his review of the book, Dr Craig Hassand from the Monash University of General Practice says the book challenges us to grow beyond the comfort of our own limitations and make a contribution to the wellbeing of others.

‘If we all have a calling in life then it may be that most of us do not heed it or are afraid to follow it. That is anything but the case for Peter Roberts and Helen Cox, two remarkable Australians whose journey is both an inspiration and a blessing to all who hear about it,’ said Dr Hassand.

‘The Harp and the Ferryman beautifully weaves together their individual and collective paths to bring music, beauty and peace to so many who suffered or confronted their own mortality. It is a book that gently challenges us to heed that still, quiet knowing within ourselves that we so often ignore in this busy and distracted world,’ he said.

For all those interested in the development of music in palliative care, both Mr Roberts and Professor Cox and along with other trained music-thanatologists will be attending the inaugural Therapeutic Music: Let the love of beauty be what we do event on Friday 22nd to Sunday 24th March at the Geelong Conference Centre, Victoria.

To read more about Mr Robert, Professor Cox or The Harp and the Ferryman, visit or

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