Text: Catherine Cochard

Music settles in at the hospital

Health care specialists increasingly believe in the therapeutic benefits of the art of music. Used for pain management, anxiety, concentration or even neuro-rehabilitation, sounds act directly on the brain.


In the maternity ward at Kosice-Saca in Slovakia, newborns listen to music through headphones.

Mar 18, 2016

Follow Up

Since 2004, music workshops have been available for children being treated at the Lausanne University Hospital and the Children’s Hospital. “It’s not music therapy. The main idea is to offer them an escape,” says Christina Demand, who works for Fondation Planètes, a foundation for sick children. “We try to help them experience the music with their bodies, for however long it takes. Some children only need a few minutes, while with others it will take an hour. But by the time we leave, the child suddenly seems more alive. And for some, music is truly eye-opening!”

Xylophone, harp, lyre, guitar or percussion. A wide enough variety of instruments is available so that there’s something for everyone. “And that helps us adapt to the child’s condition,” Demand says. “I remember a boy who was waiting for a heart transplant and loved banging on the drum as hard as possible. I couldn’t help thinking it was his way of expressing his anxiety in a positive way.”

Does the experience create future musicians? “That’s not the primary goal,” Christina Demand says. “What’s important is for a child confined to a bed to be able to break from his or her daily routine. If that brings them closer to the world of music and makes them want to continue that adventure once they get out of hospital, then that’s a positive thing!”

In Nashville, Tennessee, researchers have developed special soothers for premature infants born at 34 to 35 weeks. When the newborns coordinate their breathing and sucking correctly, the dummy activates a recording of their mother singing a lullaby. The findings of this experiment published in “Pediatrics”, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, show how newborns rewarded by the soothing sound learnt how to eat faster and therefore left the hospital earlier.

Using music as therapy in medicine is nothing new. In ancient Egypt, chants were prescribed for patients to treat sterility, rheumatic pain and insect bites. The virtues attributed to sound are of course different today. Most of the time, sound is perceived as a “mediator” that promotes communication between the patient and therapist. “Music therapy is used to treat patients with psychological, social, behavioural or relational problems and emotional, sensorial or neurological disorders,” says David Suchet, a music therapist in Lausanne.

Swiss hospitals have been using it for years. “The use of artistic mediation therapies is the result of a long process that began in the 1960s,” says Sarah Flores Delacrausaz, a music therapist who has been working at the Cery psychiatric hospital for 17 years. Music therapy has gained greater awareness thanks to the special training programmes introduced in Switzerland. Its use is gaining ground, spreading to different areas of treatment. “The appeal of this type of therapy is clear. It opens up unique and original ways towards understanding and treating psychological diseases.”

Boosting morale

A strong relationship between the patient and music therapist is vital, but even the music on its own has a positive effect. The Centre de psychiatrie du Nord Vaudois, a psychiatric hospital in Yverdon, conducted an experiment called Amenhotep. In the study, the doors to the isolation chambers became an interface where the patient could choose to play music by simply brushing against them, like a touch screen.

“The effect of music on the brain can be read in an MRI (read note opposite). There is no way of associating a melody with a given benefit because every person has their individual sound identity. “

“Even though subjects are going through a particularly chaotic period, this system gives them some control over their environment,” says Alexia Stantzos, a specialised clinical nurse at Lausanne University Hospital (CHUV) and assistant scientist at the University of Health Sciences (Haute École de la Santé) in Lausanne, which led the study. “Patients are also free to choose which song they want to listen to and adjust the volume. From a cognitive standpoint, they feel more independent, while emotionally, listening to music helps meet their individual needs.” Between now and this autumn, four of the centre’s intensive care rooms will be equipped with these music therapy doors.

Music therapy also benefits somatic disorders. “In cases of neuro-rehabilitation (e.g. stroke patients), listening to or practising music helps reduce concentration problems, improve hemiplegia and assist gait through rhythmic auditory stimulation. Music therapy also promotes speech by using a repertory that the patient is familiar with or by soothing negative emotions,” says David Suchet.

Individual sound identities

“The effect of music on the brain can be read in an MRI (read note opposite). There is no way of associating a melody with a given benefit because every person has their individual sound identity. “Any individual is made up
of different elements – such as culture, birth place, the sounds they experienced during childhood – that will shape their own musical tastes,” says Serge Ventura, director of École Romande de Musicothérapie (music therapy school in French-speaking Switzerland). “We have to figure out the sound identity of each of them before we can act effectively with music. It’s not just the music alone that treats, but the relationship that forms between the therapist and the patient through the sounds, which respond to the patient’s specific experience and identity.”

In the future, we will undoubtedly be able to measure everyone’s individual sound identity more accurately. Sync Project is a Boston-based company developing ways to align user music with biometrics collected from wearable technology, such as smartwatches and other bracelets like those made by Jawbone. Sync Project tries to establish patterns by correlating data and music. For example, the subject runs faster while listening to U2 or relaxes better with Marvin Gaye. Then the most appropriate music can be suggested for their activity and state of health. All that’s left is for everyone to create their playlist. /

A positive impact on the brain

Playing the piano, flute or violin changes an area in the brain involved in concentration, aggression and even anxiety. That finding was reported in a recent study published by the University of Vermont, United States, in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. “Playing an instrument is associated with faster cortical thickness maturation in areas of the brain used in motor planning and coordination, visuospatial ability and emotion and impulse regulation,” the authors say.

The research by Nadine Gaab at Boston Children’s Hospital has established a connection between music skills and language development. “The musicians have higher speeds of spontaneous speech when asked to describe an image and a larger working memory.”



​Even in the operating room

A study published in August 2015 in the British medical journal The Lancet reported the benefits of music in the operating room. It showed that listening to music before, during or after an operation reduced patients’ pain and anxiety. Catherine Meads of Brunel University, who conducted the research, believes that anyone undergoing surgery should be offered the option of listening to music. Even better, patients should be allowed to choose what music they would like to hear to optimise its positive effect.