Friday, February 19, 2010

Music in Medicine?

The holiday season is finally over. Not to be a complete Grinch, but I am more than happy to see all the tinsel and reindeer and artificial snow come down from the halls of our hospital. Whether all that holiday ornamentation actually belongs in a hospital is fodder for a difference essay, but the part that I’m most glad about is that the piped-in music has stopped.

Every morning, for two long months, when I slogged into the hospital to make rounds on my ill patients, I had to suffer the repeating loop of Christmas music on my way to the elevators. It’s not necessarily that I dislike holiday music—though these renditions were definitely not Grammy finalists—but that I didn’t want someone else’s music forced into my head.

Music is intensely personal. Unlike the art that adorns the hospital walls, which I am free to turn away from if I don’t like, the music was inescapable for the length of the hallway, which could feel interminable on the 57th loop of “Jingle Bell Rock.”

Music has strong therapeutic qualities, as evinced by the growing number of music therapy programs in hospital settings. There’s even a scientific journal “Music and Medicine” devoted to scientific developments in musicology that affect patients.

But I wonder about the effects on the staff who are forced to listen to music that is not of their choice? I’m not sure about the rest of my colleagues, but I am horrifically susceptible to musical worms—the melodies that get stuck in your head and replay in perpetuity.

So, for the majority of the extended holiday season, I would round on my patients and review their medical conditions with “Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly” as an underlying basso continuo. Some would say that this could be a good thing, but personally I felt hostage to these saccharine tunes.

When finally I turned in despair to my (Jewish) supervisor, he said confessed to me in a low voice: “Oh, this is my favorite time of year. The music in hall just makes me feel so happy.”

Maybe it is just personal taste, but to me music is too potent to squander with tinny Muzak forced on the unbidden masses. Here’s an essay I wrote on music and medicine that appeared in The Lancet, trying to reconcile my day-job as a physician and my after-hours gig as a struggling cello student. I’d appreciate your thoughts.


Danielle Ofri is a writer and practicing internist at New York City’s Bellevue Hospital. She is the editor-in-chief of the Bellevue Literary Review. Her newest book is Medicine in Translation: Journeys with my Patients. View the YouTube book trailer.

You can follow Danielle on Twitter and Facebook, or visit her homepage.

Her blog, Medicine in Translation, appears on Psychology Today’s website.


Matt said...

Very interesting observation. Some other resources regarding music and medicine are the Journal of Music Therapy and Music Therapy Perspectives, both publications of the American Music Therapy Association.

Music therapists are generally not big fans of the piped in music. They find that the qualities inherent in live music offer a much greater therapeutic benefit. Additionally, a client or group of clients is often a part of the music making.

Some resources:

Craig Havighurst said...

Your Lancet essay blew me away. I wrote about it today on my blog, which tracks my work as a music journalist and documentarian but which also opines on music in the world. I've rarely read anything that human-sized serious music-making as well as this piece. Please drop by some time.