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Music’s Vital Role in Medicine

by Perry Li (‘25) 

As you walk through a busy sidewalk in downtown Chicago, the rumbles of the subway, clunks of buses, and tire squeaks of cars vibrate the ground. As the sounds die off, a faint sound of a string quartet resonates from the distance. The harmonization of notes, progression of chords, and bounciness of rhythms fill the air, giving you a therapeutic and calming effect and allowing you to distance yourself from the daily noises of the mechanical world. Unknown to you and most people in the world, music plays an important role in everyday life, and more specifically, in healthcare. Music therapy is the clinical use of music to improve the health of various areas of patients, including mental, physical, social, spiritual, intellectual, etc. Not only have studies found that music can improve the behavioral patterns in infants, but music can also be used to treat pain and reduce stress. As a result, music therapy is very versatile to a diverse cohort of patients and their health issues, allowing it to be an unofficial yet universal anecdote to many. 

Music therapy can be very beneficial to infants and young children. In a study at the Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, 272 premature babies who were placed in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) were given three different treatments: a lullaby recording of the babies’ parents singing, an instrument that simulates the sounds in the womb, as well as an instrument that simulates heartbeat rhythms that matched the heartbeats and breathing patterns of the babies. A control with no music was also given. As each treatment was given, researchers measured and analyzed the babies’ heartbeat, the time they stayed quietly alert, and sucking behavior. It was found that out of all the treatments, the lullaby recording was the most effective at having a positive effect on the infants, lowering the heart rate the most and increasing the amount of the time babies stayed quietly alert, while the other two treatments (womb sound simulation & heartbeat simulation instruments) were best at improving sucking behavior and enhancing sleeping behavior, respectively. As a bonus, when the heart rates of the parents of the infants were measured before and after the therapy sessions, the rates of the parents went down, suggesting that music Is not exclusively beneficial to young humans, but adults as well.  

In addition to playing an instrumental role in the lives of infants, music therapy can improve the function of the body’s immune system function, as well as have an anesthetic effect on patients during procedures in the OR. Not only did the effect of music increase generation of antibodies and killer cells, but it also reduced stress hormones, allowing for invading viruses to be more likely resisted before any further damage could be made to the body. Playing music can also lessen the effect of pain. In painful medical procedures for children, it was observed that not only did patients who listened to calming music during procedures reported less pain, but playing music during procedures allowed IVs (intravenous) to be administered much easier. Healthcare providers reported that they administered IVs much easier to patients undergoing music treatment. 

As a result, there are many practical uses for music beyond its use of entertainment. Proponents of music therapy hope that it can be used more often in hospitals, clinics, etc. Researchers are also beginning to realize the advantages of applied music, and it is starting to be a more prevalent subject in scientific articles. The future of music therapy is bright and will serve a crucial role in linking art and science.

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