I can’t remember when I first heard the phrase, “Music hath charms that sooths the savage beast,” but as a child prodigy who began performing professionally on the piano and organ at age 11, I soon discovered music’s masterful powers. I learned quickly that I could influence a crowd’s reaction by what songs I played and the sequence they were played in.
Early in my career as a musician I was performing at a county fair when by chance I met a lady who invited me to perform for patients at the Dayton State Hospital. It was there that I first heard of this thing called music therapy. I found the thought of using music for healing fascinating and at the tender age of 12, tucked the concept into my hip pocket for future consideration.
When I was 18-years-old I became the staff organist for the Cincinnati Stingers hockey team and Cincinnati Bengals football team. When playing for crowds of 85,000 fans, I again used music to “get the crowd going” and to induce energy when things were a bit slow on the field.
Later in life I pursued advanced degrees and chose the field of mental health counseling. It was there that I continued to explore the marriage of art and medicine and its potential for healing. Little did I know that I would spend the next 25 years of my life in academic medicine teaching medical students and serving as an admissions and student affairs dean.
As I progressed in my academic career so did the field of music therapy. A quick search on the term “music therapy” in reputable academic journals reveals over 5,000 peer-reviewed articles that attest the power of music to heal.
Traditional medical education provides very little indoctrination to medical students as to the ability of the arts to assist in healing. Historically, medical education has focused its curriculum on the teaching of the basic sciences and a mentorship that provides students with exposure to the various medical disciplines. While there has been an increased emphasis on treating the “whole patient” as capsulized in the bio-psycho-social model of patient care, little has been done to expose medical students to the value of the arts in medical practice as empirically validated through a host of evidence-based research.
Yet, consider this: In pain management, music provides distraction and cognitive imagery to aid relaxation. It also reduces pain perception by blocking pain impulses to the brain in the spinal cord and releasing endorphins, which simply help us feel good. Therapeutic music helps restore lost abilities, such as memory deficits in dementia, or speech and motor deficits following a brain injury or stroke.
One of the fastest growing clinical applications of music therapy is with children with autism spectrum or other developmental disorders, helping improve self-expression, as well as social and shared communication, and perhaps reaching even less measurable goals such as improving self-esteem and quality of life.
We know from neuroimaging research that brain circuitry involved in perception and processing of music closely overlaps with those regulating emotions, arousal, pleasure, and cognition. To a great extent, this explains how music can be used as a tool to influence and regulate these fundamental human functions.
Both the power and potential of music to impact humanity is described in a simple study that was designed to show the quantifiable effects of music on nature. It was demonstrated that compared to no music at all, in vitro human cancer cells show differential growth rates in the presence of music, growing slower when exposed to more melodic sounds and faster in the presence of hard rock.
As an admissions dean I saw on students’ applications how many of them came to medical school gifted as musicians and in the visual arts, only to put that part of who they are on the shelf in order to devote more time to their studies. Yet, their artistry is an important part of who they are and helps them maintain balance as they progress through the rigors of the curriculum. It was for this reason that I started an Arts in Medicine program for the Roseman University College of Medicine. This program will provide students with performance opportunities where they may continue to use their gifts for the good of humanity as well as learn about the power of music and the arts to heal.
So the next time you go to a ballgame, pay attention to how the music affects the crowd, or notice at the next dance you attend how crowded the dance floor becomes when the DJ plays YMCA. You will see the power of music at work. And hopefully, as our future medical students become practicing physicians, you will notice that they write prescriptions for more than just the latest pharmaceutical intervention, and that they send you home with a musical playlist that has been empirically validated to help treat what ails you!