“And the lynxes purred with pleasure”

The kantele, ‘her’ personality, and a Nordic hospice setting

Wolfgang, tuning his kantele (drawing, TD)

Last month Tia visited Wolfgang to follow him and his kantele as they made their rounds at the hospice. It is obvious that Wolfgang’s kantele does a lot of beautiful work. Now Wolfgang and Tia (and, in fact, the kantele) are writing an article about that work. What properties for soothing and healing might this type of plucked, very resonant instrument have, for whom, played how and where, by whom, and why?

It is such a beautiful thing, with its lovely trapeze-shaped frame of pale woods (a combination of sycamore an mountain spruce) and row of 15 strings that can be tuned both in pentatonic and diatonic scales. According to the instrument maker in Berlin who made Wolfgang’s kantele, it is the texture of the wood from mountain trees makes the fragile instrument especially sturdy. The instrument comes in different designs (size, register, number of strings from 11-25, with or without bridge). It develops its optimal sound quality over time as the wood ages and as it becomes ‘seasoned’ from being played. So kanteles do not wear out through use, but rather gain in liveliness over the years. Wolfgang’s instrument is now 12 years old. It is a warm, natural, organic object amidst the inevitable (if important) white coats and sterile features of the hospital environment that the hospice is part of…

Wolfgang, Tia, and the kantele. (Photo: Gunn Johanessen Liland)

The kantele is also very well-behaved in a hospital or hospice setting. It, or, as Wolfgang says, ‘she’, sits quietly on his lap like a well-mannered cat. She seems to knows precisely when to be silent and when to sing, and, like a cat, how to make herself very small, or very large… 


Culturally, the kantele enjoys a rich, poetic legacy that is familiar to many people in Nordic countries. The Kalevala recounts how the first kantele was constructed from the bones of a pike and the hair of a horse’s tail:

“All the beasts that haunt the woodlands,
On their nimble feet came bounding,
Came to listen to his playing,
Came to hear his songs of joyance.
Leaped the squirrels from the branches,
Merrily from birch to aspen;
Climbed the ermines on the fences,
O’er the plains the elk-deer bounded,
And the lynxes purred with pleasure;
Wolves awoke in far-off swamp-lands,
Bounded o’er the marsh and heather,
And the bear his den deserted,
Left his lair within the pine-wood,
Settled by a fence to listen,
Leaned against the listening gate-posts,
But the gate-posts yield beneath him;
Now he climbs the fir-tree branches
That he may enjoy and wonder,
Climbs and listens to the music
Of the harp of Wainamoinen.”

Project Gutenberg, trans of the Kalevala into English

The Sibelius Academy in Helsinki has its own fields of folk music studies where the kantele is included as an important instrument. The areas around the Baltics have offshoots, or similar instruments in kokles (Latvia), kankles (Lithuania), kannel (Estonia) and gusli (Russia). In Norway, the langeleik (or langleik, langhørpu and langspill), is a famous folk music instrument.  In South-Germany and Austria the Zither is the counterpart to the kantele…

Lotte´s Zither on her commode surrounded by its audience (some of her favourite toy animals). (Photo: WS)

When Lotte hears the kantele for the first time at her bedside in the hospice she tells Wolfgang about the Zither she has at home. In her family, the Zither was played and passed along from her great-gandfather to her mother´s father, her mother and finally to her. Lotte says after her experience with the kantele music (end of 5th session): “When it comes down to it, what matters in life, who you are, you get to the core of yourself. Then you are really alone. You are really alone when you are about to die. But you have people around you who can walk the path with you. They walk with you, but they cannot follow you into death. And then to have that kind of music that you have played for me on the kantele and that made me feel so calm. I know I will be ok. I know I will manage because I have music that helps me to feel calm. To me, it is a lot about finding this calmness in myself and the ability to let go. And I believe that when the day comes that I must die, the music will carry me on and help me to find my way into death”.

Wolfgang visits Lotte and her partner two weeks later at their home place, Lotte´s condition has deteriorated and she is unrousable. Her partner tells Wolfgang that Lotte had asked him to show Wolfgang the Zither. 


Wolfgang and Tia have been exploring what the kantele can ‘do’ in hospice settings, the very instrument-specific ways in which it can be of help. One of those things involves the kantele’s deceptive simplicity – the fact that it can be played, and produce beautiful sounds, by virtually anyone, anyhow, anywhere: the instrument requires little strength and its strings, once tuned, simply respond. Perhaps for this reason, the kantele is sometimes called a ‘humble’ instrument and for this reason it is often taught in Finnish primary school. Indeed, once and a while, when Wolfgang is called in to a short conference with the medical team, he has entrusted the instrument to Tia who occasionally plucks it in a desultory way (Du spiller musikk, ja? someone passing by on the ward asked her last time – perhaps just being polite…).

So too, the techniques required for making the instrument sound, and produce different pitches and volumes, are clearly visible to an onlooker: the instrument is louder as you near the centre of a string (and the sounding hole), and quieter as you move away from it, and each pitch is produced from a separate string (different lengths – longer for lower pitches, shorter for higher pitches). Playing the kantele is done with the fingertips and produces a softer sound than would playing with a pick. There is (seemingly – but read on) no complicated fingering system or fretboard. So, compared, say, to a valveless trumpet where all is in the lips, and mostly hidden behind a mouthpiece, the internal muscles and the breath, the kantele is a ‘what you see is what you get’ (wysiwyg) instrument: its techniques of operation are not hidden or ‘black-boxed’ but can be seen and at least partially understood (and replicated) by a novice musician, by someone new to the instrument. In this sense, the kantele is an instrument that embodies some of the principles of participatory design.

In fact, the story is somewhat more complex…. One of the virtues of the kantele is its tremendous willingness to adapt. It can be played simply, by an untrained player (such as just described when Tia tried it out), and sound nice. Alternately, a more experienced player will know that there is more technique than meets the ear or eye. For example, as with other string instruments, to play each note in tune, Wolfgang is constantly adapting the power of plucking the strings, as a little bit too much or too little affects the tone pitch. 

sound graph, kantele in dorian mode
Kantele, Dorian mode

Despite these finer points of playing, the kantele’s apparent simplicity, the ease with which one can play it, means that when Wolfgang plays for and with someone at the hospice, there are few mysteries as to how the sound is produced. That clarity is perhaps especially important because patients in a hospice often face uncertainty – there are many things that are mysterious, and concerning. So, if they are able to see what Wolfgang is doing, they have good access to the processes by which the sounds are produced. And Wolfgang can be looking at them too, if that’s appropriate, without needing to distort his face to produce the sound. Because it is a string instrument, Wolfgang can also speak in between playing if appropriate – and how Wolfgang speaks with the people he visits is a huge part of his music-therapeutic craft (and a topic that we are continuing to explore). 

In fact, it might be most accurate to say that Wolfgang and the kantele (‘she’) are both visiting with, ‘speaking with’, the person in the bed or armchair. The kantele has, in other words, a nice, open personality but is not an ego, she does not ‘insist’ on being heard or on being the centre of attention. These traits mean that, if a patient (in a bed) should wish to try playing the instrument for themselves, it is possible, it requires minimal effort and it is pleasing. Low-threshold… Which is not, of course, to say that the kantele will suit everyone – no one size instrument fits all; not everyone will care for music, or care for music at this time, here, now…

On this topic, Wolfgang, Tia, Gary and Fraser have written earlier, describing one patient, Mia, then in the last weeks of her life, who borrowed Wolfgang’s kantele over a weekend, wrote a song and performed that song for her visiting siblings (who made a video recording that they then allowed to be shared with the Care for Music Team).

Mia introducing her concert and her song to her brothers

In addition to that scholarly article, Wolfgang wrote a “very short short story” from the kantele’s perspective, about ‘her’ encounter with Mia. His work is part of our methodological strategy of using poetic and artistic media as a mode of ‘gentle methods’ of research enquiry. Here is an excerpt:

She lifts me up and sails me through the air above her bed. Her fingers broken through the chemo caress my strings. Her soft, delicate fingertips find a melody. And I feel the vibrant joy in both our bodies…”


There are further and at present, more hypothetical, questions – what, if anything, might be the importance of kinaesthetic hearing + seeing? Watching, as the tense strings are plucked, listening to each tone reverberate, hearing each tone linger and eventually fade back into the silence of a hospital or hospice room… Does the instrument afford a particular set of metaphoric understandings? For example, of how pain might be managed, what pain might be like, how pain might also ‘fade’? A listener might make a connection between the notion of taut nerves or muscles, of those tense things being stretched and allowed to relax, to vibrate, resonate… And perhaps through that to ease, to be more quiet than before… Then there is the sight of that gentle activity – how the instrument is played… Again this might not be a link that all or even many might make, but it might be easier to make this link given the material properties of the kantele, than, for example, the trumpet (absolutely glorious as that instrument is). 


On one of the days Tia visited with Wolfgang there was a strong wind blowing outside the hospital. From inside one patient’s room, they could hear the trees at the base of the mountain rustling and see them as they were blown back and forth. The hospital room, therefore, was not as quiet as it usually would have been. It was almost, Tia thought, as if the kantele had become an aeolian harp. Later, when she mentioned this to Wolfgang, she learned that he had taken careful notice of the natural sounds and was working with them, weaving the wind into his playing. As Tia sat in the corner of the room (we do not have permission to discuss the reactions of the person we were with at this time and so will not say anything about him/her), Tia felt completely at peace, attentive to the wind which the almost inaudible kantele served as a counterpoint. She reflected on how, if she were in that hospice bed, it might well be these kinds of sounds that she would most long to hear…


It might seem that we are romanticising the kantele – and perhaps we are. But we hope what we are also doing is enquiring into the manifold, micro-crafted features of how ‘she’ (the instrument) comes to be empowered to act – on each, specific and individual, occasion. So, for example, when Wolfgang introduces the kantele to a person for the first time, he plays some music to let the person hear ´her´ sound; from there, they decide themselves if they want to hear more – or not. (There are only a few do not wish to hear the kantele´s sound at all, and only a very few who do not want Wolfgang to continue after he first plays). Once decided, Wolfgang asks the person to find a comfortable position in their bed or armchair, close their eyes if they want, and then have not more to do. Wolfgang adds that he might adapt the improvised music to the person, relate to their breathing and overall condition. But not necessarily. 

After a first improvisation (2-3 minutes), Wolfgang will pause, listen, and give space to the person to respond or remain silent. In this pause some people give feedback about the music and tell that it is comforting, calming, soothing, that they have less pain. Or that the music should be different: Calmer, more lively, softer, louder…  Some people just ask for more kantele music. And some have their own ideas and tell Wolfgang how they wish to continue, for example, here, first Daniel and then, Anders: 

Daniel: After the first improvisation where Daniel gets to know the sound of the kantele, he suggests that he might conduct Wolfgang´s playing. His wife and son are present in the hospice room. Daniel sits in his bed and initially moves his fingers, subsequently his hands and arms to tell a dramatic story with music. The kantele’s music follows Daniel´s gestures and movements: Single soft tones accumulate and increase, and lead to waves of energetic soundclusters and tremoli that gradually recede again. In this performance, Wolfgang plays the instrument as soft and as loud as he can. To match the dynamic sound qualities of Daniel´s sweeping arm movements, Wolfgang helds the instrument with its back towards his stomach, so that the instrument´s body and his body complement each other resulting in higher volume.  

Michaela, Daniel´s nurse on that day, approaches Wolfgang after the session to say, that the atmosphere in the room was quite different after Daniel´s performance. She could sense emotional resolution and belonging, qualities that had not been there before. Wolfgang and Daniel get to see each other a second time at Daniel’s home. Together with Daniel´s son, they choose music for his funeral. 

Anders: The third time Anders meets Wolfgang and the kantele he watches them attentively. He recalls his experiences with the kantele music from the week before and tells that he had seen himself as a little boy flying away with the music. 

During the first improvisation on the kantele in this session, Anders dreams away and flies again with the music. During the second piece of improvised music, he sees himself above a beach, but is this time distracted by the kantele music. It is too energetic and rhythimcal. So, Wolfgang asks Anders to tell him more about the place (beach) where he wants to be and then adapts the music accordingly, finally plays music that is calmer and more open in it´s melodic structures.

That wasn’t easy”, Anders says after the music. “I am going to die”.

Anders tells Wolfgang more about the vision he had while the kantele was playing. He was on a sailing boat off to the sea. His family had gathered at the beach, but not all of them were there. So, he turned into an eagle and flew back to them. He wanted to say goodbye to everyone.

Anders pauses for some time. Then asks for some more music and suggests: “Maybe it goes better with more rhythmical music?”

He closes his eyes and again turns into an eagle in his imagination while the music is on, flies back to his family at the beach to make sure that they are all together and ok.

This is difficult. But I managed to say goodbye this time”.

Some thoughts later, from Wolfgang´s research log: “Anders shares his experiences and needs openly. He employs and accommodates the kantele music to fit with his ideas (a kind of ´flying carpet´, a vehicle for his last journey?). He imagines how it will be, what needs to be in place for him to be able to let go. And seems to prepare himself for ´how´ to do this. The kantele music shelters, contains and expresses his resources and his vulnerability.”


“…Now he climbs the fir-tree branches
That he may enjoy and wonder,
Climbs and listens to the music
Of the harp of Wainamoinen.”


Over the past years, the instrument´s role in interdisciplinary care and pain management at the hospice has become more distinct and recognized. Here at the hospice, music and the administration of analgesics are combined as often as this is possible for practical reasons, acknowledging that a person´s pain experience is individual and complex, and needs to be met in its physical, emotional, social and spiritual dimensions. It is linked to a developing collaboration between physiotherapy and musictherapy and that is contributing to the holistic approach to care at the hospice. As Wolfgang’s medical colleagues see it, the kantele contributes to a balance between providing patients with a fundamental embodied experience of, on the one hand, activation (physiotherapy) and, on the other, rest (music therapy). That balance is often hard to achieve when someone is in immense pain or experiencing side effects of medication. As Sara, a specialized palliative care nurse, put it when speaking to Wolfgang:

 “Du spiller på andre strenger” (“you play on different strings”).

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