Monday, October 17, 2011

Music as Medicine

Anyone working in an operating room during surgery is familiar with the fact that doctors bring their own music to "work." While not a doctor or nurse, I have traveled as a medical coordinator with surgical teams to under-served countries on three continents and I can vouch for the fact that everyone puts iPods and speakers on the list along with surgical supplies and instruments when planning a trip. While here I am describing music as perhaps an aid to the operating room staff (to help keep focus?), much research is now being done on the role of music as a mechanism to heal.
In 2010, Claudius Conrad from the Harvard Medical School and Harvard Stem Cell Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, Department of Surgery, in Boston published a perspective in The Lancet, a health journal, entitled "Music for healing: from magic to medicine." Conrad provided an overview of the magical, ritual and mystical origins of music as a healing modality from Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal times till now. He pondered the evolution of music therapy despite the fact that "a fundamental question underlying the role of music in health is also to ask why music developed in the first place and why it produces an emotional reaction and attenuation of the human stress response in the listener despite serving no essential biological need." He further states:
The oldest example of the contextual use of music for healing may be the depiction of harp-playing priests and musicians in frescos from 4000 BCE. During this era, a Codex haburami (hallelujah to the healer), was performed as sonorous reimbursement for medicinal services rendered. In 2000 BCE, the cuneiform writings of Assyrians depict the use of music to circumvent the path of evil spirits. In later centuries, the first specific application of music as therapy developed in ancient Greece, with Aesculapius recommending the use of music to conquer passion. Perhaps not until the 6th and 5th centuries BCE, did an interest develop in trying to understand the effects of music on human beings.
Continuing to the Middle Ages, "the alternating sound of the flute and the harp served as a remedy for gout." Contemporary shamans and other healers actively use drumming, stringed instruments, dance and trance to heal the sick, keep the healthy well, welcome newborns to humanity and send spirits to their final homes at funerals. Research institutions and hospitals are examining the benefits of music in the fields of mental health (including autism), dentistry and surgery. 

The Guardian recently published a piece entitled, "Turkish doctors call the tune with traditional musical cures." A hospital in Istanbul is using complementary therapy for a range of illnesses by playing ancient Arabesque scales and patterns (see photo above). Stressing that music and healing is not new, the doctors explain how different pitches and patterns produce varying effects. For example, Dr. Sonmez says that "Without having to prescribe additional drugs, five to 10 minutes of a certain musical piece lowers the heart rate and blood pressure." He further states, "We are not doing anything new, and we are not reinventing the wheel . . . The positive effects of music therapy have been known for well over 900 years." According to the article, the use of musical instruments "was integrated into medieval Islamic medicine as early as the 9th century, when scholar and philosopher Al Farabi discussed and cataloged the effect of different musical modes on body and psyche." Dr. Somnez says the staff sometimes play music for each other on break so that everyone is "cared for." 

To read the full article from the Guardian click here.

And for another look at the healing power of music, watch The Story of the Weeping Camel from national Geographic. "When a Mongolian nomadic family's newest camel colt is rejected by its mother, a musician is needed for a ritual to change her mind" from IMDB. Trailer below.


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