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.

We all know that music can bring people together.  At a party, at a concert, at a dance, a drum circle, gathering together to listen to a song on a friend’s phone…and a million other ways.  This is also true in a hospital room, when the stakes are extremely high - in the critical care unit.  When I visit patients at the hospital, providing music therapy services in the Intensive Care Unit, they are often times accompanied by family members and friends.  And, as you can imagine, it’s a very stressful environment for all involved; some of these family members don’t know if their loved-ones will make it through the next 24 hours.  In these situations, music therapy is as much for the caregiver as well as the patient.

In these cases, music is used to reduce anxiety and release tension, music is used to help with coping, music is used to help with finding and understanding feelings about the situation, music is provided to create a soundscape for saying…“goodbye”.  And music ALWAYS brings people together. Always.  It amazes me how instantaneous connections happen when music is introduced, between family member and patient, friends with each other, and even with me.  Music adds an element like nothing else.  Even in a hospital room.

I’m thinking of a recent patient that I saw, a gentleman in his mid-40s who had an unexpected seizure the previous day and has since been unresponsive and on a ventilator.  I was told that his family was having a very tough time and that his wife requested music therapy.  When I arrived there were some other family members in the room and she asked them to let her have some private time, with her husband. She told me that her husband loved the guitar and was trying to learn to play.  I started by playing some simple chords as she closed the curtain to the room and then sat next to her husband.  She then took his hand and put her head on his chest and started to cry.  This was such an intimate moment and it was also a little overwhelming for me.  But I had the music to hold everything together.  She needed to release tension and she needed emotional support and she was using the music to facilitate that and work through her emotions.  I played and quietly sang a few songs for them (her) including a song by U2, his favorite band; using the songs to create a space for her to just be with him.  She cried for a bit and then slowly appeared to become somewhat content.  I followed her lead and as she settled somewhat I slowed down the music, working with her energy, slowing down the tempo and then finally bringing the music to a slow mantra, holding on a final chord and a simple “ohm” vocal.  She appeared to have fallen asleep with her head resting on her husband’s chest.  She needed a release and the music helped her.  The music was both an outlet for emotion and a forum for comfort.  As I sat in silence, in the room with her resting on her husband’s chest, nothing but the subtle sound of the ventilator, I felt honored that she allowed me to share this moment with them.

Then there was the woman, in her 60s, whom had a recent cardiac arrest and the family decided to take her off of mechanical support, she wasn’t going to recover.  I was asked to provide some music as the family was waiting for the inevitable.  I entered a silent room and several family members, including some of her children, were sitting in various corners of the room, looking at the floor, staring off; together - yet alone.  I sat on the side and started quietly playing some arpeggiated chords on the guitar, working to provide a musical space for them to help soothe and emote.  Almost as if on cue, everyone in the room, perhaps 8 people total, got up and moved towards the bed and came together at her bedside.  Holding her hand, reaching for each other and many, through tears, were saying “goodbye”, but also saying that it was going to be okay, that she could let go and that they were going to be okay.  And, they kept telling her they loved her.  This was a sad, yet beautiful and very meaningful moment for them.  And what got them together, got them out of their own worlds and own awkward ways of figuring out what they were feeling, what brought them to her…was music.  Music…always…brings people together.

The healing power of music…

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