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 makes us feel good.  Think about when a favorite song from your senior year of high school comes on the radio unexpectedly…it makes you feel good. Or, a new song from a favorite band connects with you…it makes you feel good (‘Kiss This’ by The Struts!).  Putumayo World Music brought the music of the world to novice music listeners with the tag line – “Guaranteed to make you feel good!”  And it does, just listen to the albums Arabic Groove, Acoustic Brazil or Italian Café and see what happens.  Music makes us feel good!

But…there’s more to it then that.  Our bodies work like music works.  The backbone of all music is rhythm; our heart beats in rhythm, we breathe in rhythm, we walk in rhythm.  When our bodies are “in tune” we feel good, just like when the symphony orchestra is in tune, it sounds good.  However, if the oboe player is out of tune, it effects the entire orchestra and something just doesn’t sound right.  Just like, if something is ailing us, say a broken toe, a bronchial infection, a herniated disc, respiratory distress, cancer; we feel “out of tune”.  When we feel good, there is harmony.  And harmony in music, well, just listen to Lennon and McCartney’s vocals on ‘I Will’.  

In medicine, music can help:

-       The Parkinson’s’ patient, who’s shuffling gait stabilizes when listening to and feel the rhythm of Nat King Cole while walking

-       The COPD sufferer who’s breathing stabilizes when playing a wind instrument, such as the recorder

-       The stroke survivor who lost their voice…and finds it again through singing

-       The cancer patient, in pain, who finds relief by “playing” on an instrument what the pain feels like…and then “playing” what feeling better is like

There is scientific evidence backing all the above examples of how music can work with our bodies.  This is why more and more medical settings are bringing in music therapy.

Getting back to rhythm.  I work with a lot of patients in the Intensive Care Unit who are on mechanical ventilation because of respiratory distress.  Machines that help them breathe and breathe for them.  And as you may imagine, that is an extremely stressful experience.  When these patients have anxiety, their heart rates quicken.  And they need medicated sedation and therefore, it takes longer to get them back to breathing on their own.  And the longer on mechanical ventilation, more complications are probable. We can use music to help reduce their heart rate and anxiety.  Again, music works with our bodies, thus, the concept of entrainment.  In working with these patients, I can play music in the tempo of their heart rate, using the rhythm of the music to match and lock in with their current heart rate. And when the tempo of the music is slowly decreased, often times, their heart rate will follow.  Their heart rate “entrains” with the music…and their anxiety is reduced.  Again, there is scientific evidence that this works and this is why a trained music therapist, using live music, works in medical settings.  The core of our inner being and functionality is in line with…music.

At the hospital where I work I recently was asked to visit a woman who was having cardiac issues and shortness of breath. She had been in the hospital for several days and was very anxious.  When I met her she told me that she felt weak and “just didn’t feel right” (out of tune?) and her hands were visibly shaking.  Reducing her anxiety was very important to her well-being.  We chatted briefly, about her feelings about being in the hospital, her support system, and about music.  She liked soft rock, from the 70s.  So I started with “Take it Easy” by the Eagles.  I played the song in a tempo and feel that matched her current “state of being”, where, I felt, she was at the time.  Over the course of the next few songs I gradually started bringing the tempo and “feel of the music” down, using the music to help relax her body…and her mind.  And we talked about rhythm, her heart beating in rhythm and her breathing rhythm.  I concluded with a slow and easy version of the song “Keep Breathing” by Ingrid Michaelson.  At this point her eyes were closed, her face was soft, but she was slowly keeping pulse with her feet.  She seemed to be in a fairly relaxed state.  When the song ended we just sat in silence for a bit.  I noticed that her hands were not shaking as they were earlier. Finally, I asked her how she was doing and she smiled and said, “I feel good, I think I’m going to take a nap.” I used the music to work with the tempo of her body and her mind.  I used the rhythm of the music to work with the rhythms of her body.  And, I chose songs that she liked; that made her feel good. Music therapy.

“All that I know is I’m breathing,

All I can do is keep breathing,

All we can do is keep breathing…now.”  Ingrid Michaelson

The healing power of music…

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