The Healing Power of Music

The Healing Power of Music?
I was recently offered the opportunity to play my acoustic guitar for the MAPS Medical Pain Clinic’s, “Patient Appreciation Day”. (MAPS is a local medical clinic that specializes in relieving pain and improving function in patients with persistent pain who have failed to respond to routine medical care).  The idea was just to have some entertaining music near a spread of pain fighting foods for the patients to enjoy while they waited to see their doctor.  I performed most of the day and the response was very positive.  Many patients either waved or gave me a “thumbs up” as they left the office after their appointment.  Several others paid me compliments about my music.  I noticed a common theme among the comments I was receiving from the patients throughout the day.  I was told that my music was very “soothing” and/or that it helped to reduce their pain by “taking their mind off of it.”  I wasn’t very surprised by either comment, as the former is the most common description of my music that I am given by people who have seen me play around town, and the latter was the entire reason I was brought in to play for the patients in the first place. 

Christiaan Engstrom, the COO of MAPS (the cool guy that got me the gig), and I had casually spoken about how music could be used in therapy a number of times before he finally booked me to perform at the clinic.  After all, music therapy has been around for many years as an actual profession, so it’s not like it was this new revolutionary idea that Christiaan and I hatched together.  Even before music therapy was recognized in the medical community as a legitimate form of therapy, it was essentially an ancient wisdom. 
My Personal Experience with Music as it Pertains to Easing Pain
I have personally experienced how music can help soothe pain since I was a child.  Both my brother and I have a bone disease called, “Osteogenesis Imperfecta” (sometimes referred to as “OI” for short or “brittle bone disease”).  Essentially, the bone density of our bones is that of your average 70 year olds, leaving our bones much more brittle than a typical person’s (there are varying degrees of the severity of this disease, some have it so bad that simply changing their diaper when they are babies would leave them with broken bones, my brother and I have a more mild case).  By the time I was twelve, my brother and I had a combined total of over 100 fractures between us (although we never counted broken toes, as they were so frequent we didn’t consider them to be “real” fractures).  I remember when I fractured my femur in kindergarten playing a game of “red light, green light” with my brother and sister (if you have “OI” I’d suggest that you don’t play that game on a slippery tile floor while wearing socks).  It happened during the last week of school, and I spent the entire summer stuck on the couch in our living room in a body cast (to add insult to injury, the home I grew up in had a huge picture window in said living room so I was forced into looking on while my siblings gleefully played in the front yard while I was left miserably immobile).  The room’s only saving grace was that it was where my mother’s piano was situated.  My mother would play the piano for me nearly every day (at least, I thought she was playing just for me, but she was likely just practicing) and I definitely have memories of looking forward to it, if only to focus my mind on something other than my throbbing leg.  
Later in life, I found that both listening to and playing music was a huge help in getting my mind off of my chronic back pain.  I have had back pain for many years, and there was a six month period in my life where my pain was so horrible that about the only thing that helped me to focus my mind on anything but the pain I was constantly enduring, was playing my acoustic guitar.  I played so much during that time period; I could probably attribute a great deal of my expertise in finger-style guitar to my chronic back pain!   

Back to MAPS

So, a few weeks after I performed for the appreciation day at MAPS, Christiaan and I got to talking more about the music therapy idea, and whether it could really be beneficial for their patients to enjoy some live music before their doctor visit on a more regular basis.  We decided to do a one month trial at the MAPS location in Edina.  I was to play guitar on Wednesday’s and Friday’s for 4 weeks near the front lobby of the clinic.  The first week went really great.  I received the same sort of comments as I did the first time I played there, the staff seemed to enjoy themselves, and one of the doctors even popped by with his harmonicas to jam some blues with me.  I was having a blast and decided I’d really dig into some information about music therapy as it pertains to chronic pain and see if there would be some justification behind the idea of me being there beyond just providing entertainment for the patients.  Could my music literally be helping to reduce people’s pain or not?

I did what any red-blooded male under the age of 40 does when they have a new topic they’d like to investigate: I sat in front of my computer and pulled up Google.  I found so many studies and articles from reputable sources such as the Journal of Pain, Men’s Fitness,, Weill Cornell Medical College, the International Association for Music and Medicine (IAMM) etc. that backed up the assertion that music can literally fight pain, I was overwhelmed.  One study I read said participants who concentrated on songs while receiving electric shocks actually cut their pain levels by 17 percent compared to others who did not.  Several more discovered that a great deal of the brain pathways that process pain are also used to process music.  So, naturally, if you’re focus is on a piece of music, the brain pathways that would be processing the pain are tied up processing the music.  A South Korean study found that people who listened to music while they rested for 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes at night, on postoperative days, experienced 26 to 27 percent less pain than a control group who rested without listening to music.
Some Types of Music are More Effective
There were a number of studies I read about that suggested that certain types of music are more effective at reducing pain than others.  For instance, many studies found that more uplifting music, or songs with harmonies that are more pleasing to the ears, were better at relieving pain than dissonant music (i.e. tri tones or other “clashing” notes aren’t as effective as say, songs with major chords).  Other studies found that people experienced a larger reduction in their pain when they listened intently to music they were familiar with as opposed to songs they didn’t know.

Obviously, all of this lends some credence to the idea that my acoustic guitar playing is actually having a profound effect on the overall level of pain that the patients visiting MAPS are experiencing during their wait.  The majority of the music I play is consonant (i.e. harmonious sounding) as opposed to dissonant, and I play a lot of songs that most people are very familiar with (pop/rock hits spanning several eras).
A Future at MAPS?

As I write this blog, we are beginning the second week of our four week trial.  At this point, the staff at MAPS and I have considered this initiative to be a huge success.  Patients are telling their doctors about how much they enjoy the tunes, not to mention all of the foot tapping I see in the waiting room while I play.  I can’t be certain how the next few weeks will go, but I am hopeful that patient reactions to the live music will continue to be positive enough for them to consider adding me as a permanent fixture in their front lobby for the months ahead.