• Drake Silver

Music Has the Power to Heal

As he strummed hypnotic chords on a Spanish-style classical guitar, Andrew Rossetti, a licensed music therapist and researcher, said, "Focus on the sound of the instrument." “Close your eyes for a moment. Consider a location where you feel secure and at ease.”

When Julia Justo, a graphic artist who immigrated to New York from Argentina, went to Mount Sinai Beth Israel Union Square Clinic for cancer care in 2016, music therapy was the last thing on her mind. However, it soon assuaged her concerns about the radiation treatment she would have to undergo, which had been causing her a great deal of anxiety.

“I immediately noticed a difference; I was much more relaxed,” she said.

Mr. Rossetti's gentle guitar riffs and visualization exercises helped Ms. Justo cope with ongoing problems, such as having a decent night's sleep, even though she had been cancer-free for over four years. They communicate mostly by email nowadays.

Medical science is now confirming the healing power of music, which has been praised by philosophers from Aristotle to Pythagoras to Pete Seeger. It's used to treat asthma, autism, depression, and other conditions, as well as brain disorders like Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's disease, epilepsy, and stroke.

Live music has found its way into unexpected places, such as oncology waiting rooms, to help patients relax while they await radiation and chemotherapy. It also comforts the dying in hospices and greets newborns in some neonatal intensive care units.

Musical therapies are increasingly being used as adjuncts to other types of medical care, despite the fact that they are seldom used as stand-alone treatments. They assist people in coping with stress and mobilizing their bodies' natural healing abilities.

Mr. Rossetti said, “Patients in hospitals are always getting things done to them.” “We are providing them with services that they can use to self-regulate, to feel grounded and calmer, through music therapy. We're allowing them to take an active role in their own care.”

Mr. Rossetti has continued to perform live music for patients and during the coronavirus pandemic. He claims that since the outbreak of the pandemic, he has seen an uptick in acute anxiety, making musical therapies much more effective than they were before the crisis.

It's more than just a mood enhancer. Music performed in a clinical environment appears to have observable medical benefits, according to an increasing body of study.

“Those that receive the therapy tend to need less anxiety medication and can even get by without it,” said Dr. Jerry T. Liu, an assistant professor of radiation oncology at Mount Sinai's Icahn School of Medicine.

Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University published a study of 400 research papers in 2013 and found that “listening to music was more effective than prescription medications in reducing anxiety prior to surgery.”

“Music transports patients to a place inside themselves where they feel at ease. Dr. Manjeet Chadha, director of radiation oncology at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York, said, "It relaxes them without having any side effects."

It may also aid in the treatment of long-term phobias. Mr. Rossetti recalls one patient who was pinned under concrete debris at Ground Zero on September 11, 2001. The woman was afraid of the thermoplastic restraining system put around her chest during radiation, which reawakened her fears of being entrapped years later while she was being treated for breast cancer.

Mr. Rossetti remembered that “daily music therapy helped her to process the pain and her huge fear of claustrophobia and successfully complete the treatment.”

Prerecorded services that patients can listen to with headphones have been implemented in some hospitals. Music is usually performed live at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, using a variety of instruments such as drums, pianos, and flutes, with the performers maintaining sufficient social distance.

Joanne Loewy, the managing director of the hospital's Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine, said, "We change what we play according to the patient's breath and heart rate." “As they go through these difficult treatments, our aim is to anchor the individual, to keep their mind attached to their body.”

To help premature babies and their parents relax during their stay in noisy neonatal intensive care units, Dr. Loewy pioneered strategies that use a Gato Box, which simulates the patterns of the mother's heartbeat, and an Ocean Disc, which mimics the whooshing sounds in the womb.

With the proliferation of bluetooth speakers, Dr. Dave Bosanquet, a vascular surgeon at the Royal Gwent Hospital in Newport, Wales, says that music has become much more popular in operating rooms in England in recent years. He claims that not only does prerecorded music help surgical patients relax, but it also helps surgeons concentrate on their work. He prefers classical music because it "evokes mental vigilance" and doesn't have distracting lyrics, but warns that it "can only be played during low or average stress procedures" and not during complex operations that require more concentration.

Music has also been shown to help people recover from surgery. Music was found to alleviate postoperative pain and anxiety, as well as the need for anti-anxiety medications, according to a study published in The Lancet in 2015. Surprisingly, they discovered that music was successful even when patients were sedated.

None of this shocks Edie Elkan, a 75-year-old harpist who believes that there are few areas in the health-care system where music will not be beneficial. She played her instrument in a hospital for the first time for her husband, who was on life support after emergency surgery.

“The hospital told me I couldn't bring my harp into the room, but I insisted,” she said. His vital signs, which had been dangerously low, returned to normal as she played the harp for him. “The hospital workers swung open the door and said, ‘You have to play for everyone.'”

These directions were taken seriously by Ms. Elkan. After a two-year search for a hospital willing to fund the program, the Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in Hamilton, New Jersey, agreed to sign on, allowing her to open a music school on the premises and perform for patients at all times of their stay.

Since the founding of her company, Bedside Harp, in 2002, Ms. Elkan and her students have performed for over a hundred thousand patients in 11 hospitals.

The harp players have been serenading patients at the hospital's entrance and conducting special therapy sessions for the staff outside in the months after the pandemic started. Later this season, they plan to start playing indoors.

It can be a disturbing experience for certain patients to be welcomed at the hospital door by ethereal harp music.

As a woman in her mid-70s stepped out of the van to a medley of popular tunes including "Beauty and the Beast" and "Over the Rainbow" being performed by a harpist, Susan Rosenstein, she turned back questioningly to the driver. “It's her responsibility to put a smile on your face,” the driver replied.

While Ms. Elkan admits that it's difficult to quantify the effect statistically — "How can you put a number on the importance of someone smiling who hasn't smiled in six months?" she asks.

— research suggests that harp therapy can help patients and hospital workers relax and cope with stress.

Ms. Elkan is eager to point out that she is not practicing music therapy, which requires a five-year program of research that includes training in psychology and areas of medicine.

She said, "Music therapists have unique therapeutic goals." “There is no aim other than to relax, soothe, and give people hope,” says the team.

Ms. Elkan said, “When we come into a unit, we remind people to exhale.” “Everyone is holding their breath, particularly in the emergency room and the intensive care unit. When we arrive, we reduce the level of tension by many decibels.”

According to Ted Taylor, who oversees pastoral care at the hospital, Ms. Elkan's harp can do more than just soothe emotions. It can provide spiritual solace to people who are experiencing a very vulnerable time in their lives.

Mr. Taylor, a Quaker, said, "There is something enigmatic that we can't measure." “I refer to it as soul medicine. Her harp has the ability to reach into that deep place that unites all of us as human beings.”