Music and Medicine

Medical school applications require an essay and most pre-meds write about “why I want to be a doctor.”  All those missives begin to sound the same and can really bore the med school admissions committee.  When I applied back in 1984 I wanted my essay to be different, so I wrote how being a violinist would make me a better doctor.  I was proud of that little composition and wish I still had a copy.  Needless to say, I got in.

The gist of my essay was that learning and playing an instrument requires hard work and concentration akin to learning medicine.  However, while medical practice can drain one’s energy and soul, playing music can restore these, and help the practitoner cope with a career that often involves despair, tragedy, and death.

Music has health benefits for the patient as well as the doctor.  Music and our lives are already intertwined.  We listen to music while we work, in our cars, while we exercise, and then when we go out.  Movies, television shows, plays, and video games all have music accompaniments.  It’s no surprise that there are myriad interactions between music and health.

The health benefit of music starts with babies, even premature ones.  Infants in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit are born to a noisy place- the hiss and whir of machines, the babble of doctors and nurses and therapists, the beeping of alarms.  These noises are stressful to babies that should otherwise be hearing a mother’s voice and lullabies. Indeed, researchers have found that playing music to premature infants soothes their vital signs and improves their eating and sleeping patterns. The music also soothes the stressed parents huddling around the isolette.

Beyond infancy, music has many other health benefits.  Science has shown that music can help treat depression (though probably not with “death metal”), reduce anxiety in patients before surgery or in the emergency department, and even improve the body’s immune function.  Music sometimes works better than medication to relieve anxiety or chronic pain.

Learning music also improves concentration.  Just look at the faces of kids learning a new instrument and you’ll see.  When I was first learning the violin, I used to play with my mouth wide open, partly from concentration, partly so my jaw would hold the instrument under my chin.  I looked like I was being constantly surprised.  My teacher at the time did me one better- she told me she used to drool on her violin, so busy was she with the notes and the fingers and the bow!

Music-improved learning starts, like with our premature baby from above, in infancy. Researchers have found that hearing music enhances a baby’s language acquisition.  It seems that infants hear people speaking like they hear music- they listen to patterns and tone rather than listen for meaning.  Only later does the meaning of words and inflection get attached to the sound.  And the more sounds, music or talk, that a baby hears, the faster their brain gets at interpreting the sound.

When kids get to school, music remains an important aid to learning.  The National Association for Music Education lists 20 benefits of having music education in school. Here are the ones important to me as an Emergency Department doctor:

1.  Stress Relief- whether the stress is in me, or in the many patients I see with anxiety and depression; music soothes, and playing music soothes even more.

2.  Playing music improves coordination- I was a klutz as a kid and was always getting hurt.  Learning an instrument teaches a kid to concentrate on coordinating his body as much as learning a sport.  Better coordination and fewer accidents mean fewer broken bones and lacerations in the ER.

3.  Playing in a band or orchestra leads to success in society- playing together requires teamwork, and band members learn to get along and belong while making music. Students in band or orchestra are more likely to be successful in life, and less likely to abuse drugs or alcohol.

So let’s keep music education strong in schools.  Not every kid can afford private lessons, and learning music helps kids be smarter, healthier, happier, less stressed, and more capable.  That’s certainly as important as math, US history, and football.