A tale of 2 ladies…and music.


By Ray Leone, MMT, MT-BC 

Ray is a Board-Certified music therapist who directs A Place To Be’s medical music therapy program through a partnership with Inova Health Systems.

Music, and art in general, is subjective and very personal and on any given day at the hospital where I work, it touches and affects everyone whom I work with in very different ways.  It always amazes me how a simple song, style, mode, key, tempo or chord progression can have an individual effect on personal healing.  I learn something everyday when working in this amazing atmosphere with these amazing people that allow me into the world of their hospital rooms; people who allow me to share music with them during some of the most heightened times of life (and end of life).  I’d like to introduce you to 2 lovely ladies I had the honor to meet this past week:

The first was a woman in her 70s, in the oncology unit, who is now in palliative care for an end stage cancer.  When we met she looked tired and spent, however, was very “with it” and open to having me spend a little time with her.  When I asked how she was doing she said, with a slight smile, “It’s been a long road but I’m here today…and that’s good.”  She wasn’t in pain but just feeling generally bad and after I told her why I was there she said, “Okay, sit down and let’s see what you got."  She loves both spiritual music and the blues (contrast or conformity?) and when I started playing and singing, she closed her eyes and appeared to drift away with the music.  Her somewhat hardened face softened into a peaceful contentedness.  I started with ‘Old Rugged Cross’ and worked my way around to 'Route 66’.  During the later she was slowly grooving with some light movement with her head and feet, although still looking relaxed with her eyes closed while lying in her hospital bed.  When I finished and was packing up she said, "Everyone comes in here and gives me pills and takes blood, you come in and sing to me…now that makes me feel better."  Her smile made me feel warm inside. 

I then met with a woman, in the general unit, in her early 80s who’s in the hospital for various respiratory issues.  She also has dementia and gets agitated when the doctors and nurses try to work with her.  She was accompanied by her very loving daughter who told me that she loves music, also spiritual as well as the music of the 50s (again, conformity?)  When I entered her room she appeared quite confused and had an expressionless face; she barley seemed able to keep her eyes open.  However, when I started playing, just improvising around on the guitar to start, it was as if a switch went on…her face lit up and suddenly there was life in her eyes.  She held my eye contact and smiled.  Her daughter said, "Oh my God…that’s the most I’ve seen out of her today!"  When I stared singing she started bopping her head and when I worked my way to 'This Little Light of Mine’ she started singing along.  Her daughter was laughing through a few tears and took out her phone to film us (she said that she was going to send this to all of her relatives).  After the song, I said to her "You have a beautiful voice.”  And she immediately replied, “No, you have a beautiful voice” and started laughing.  Now there was no confusion and we were having a very real moment, in and around the music.  After a few more songs (and more bopping) I eventually tried to bring things down to close out the session.  I started playing and singing a down-tempo version of 'Love Me Tender’ but after a few phrases, she started bopping again in the bed and the intended “lullaby” turned into an upbeat 50s shuffle.  It was as if she couldn’t help herself…and I was just following her lead.  As I was packing up, her daughter said that the music seemed to just wake her up and that it was amazing to see (it was!)  She (the daughter) then started looking for music to play for her on her phone.  She (the patient) looked right into my eyes and gave me quite a smile as I said goodbye; a beautiful smile that I would cherish for the remainder of the day.

While music is indeed personal and subjective, amongst other things, it can soothe, ease, invigorate, move and bring one into the present moment.  And that is why music is so effective in a medical environment.

The healing power of music…

(*the stories presented in this blog are based on accounts and experiences and are not actual accounts and experiences)