“Music Speaks Louder than Words…”

July 26th, 2012

In my experience over the years with Shands Arts in Medicine I’ve used a number of different instruments to raise patients’ spirits and inspire their friends and family through music. Recently I’ve been taking the Celtic lap harp around with me, to reach patients who are non-verbal or who don’t speak English, through instrumental music and wordless song sharing. One day I had a couple of students from our AIM intensive with me up in Pediatrics, and as we passed by the playroom, one of my AIM colleagues  was in there already, helping the kids paint pictures.

I stopped in and beHarp and Handsgan to play some music, and as I did one little girl was really intrigued with the harp.  I had tuned it in a pentatonic scale so that all the notes sound good together.  I invited the girl to play and she loved strumming it–she was a natural! Her mother was also there, and told me that the little girl’s sister, the patient,  was down the hall.  I asked if the patient would like to hear some music and the mother took me to the room.

When I walked in I saw that the patient was a baby, lying in a crib, hooked up to several machines and crying rhythmically at the time. I began to play the harp, humming along to the music, while the mother stroked her head. The other little girl came in, and I asked her if she’d like to play for her sister. I held the harp as she strummed it, and after about five minutes, the baby calmed down and peacefully went to sleep. The students were standing outside the door, and told me they noticed the numbers on the machine that registers the patient’s bodily functions such as blood pressure and heart rate went from 200 to 188, an extraordinary improvement.

I have also found that music does wonders with nonverbal patients who are trying to find their voice again. I recall one woman who was in the hospital recovering from a recent stroke. Many stroke patients regain their verbal abilities after several weeks, but often feel helpless when they are initially unable to express themselves. The woman’s family was in the hospital visiting with her, and I came in with the harp and asked if they wanted to hear some music. They did, and her husband told me her favorites were gospel hymns. Just as I started to clarify, “…like Amazing Grace?”, her husband said the same in unison, and as we laughed I started to play. The whole family began to join in and sing the song along with me, a cathartic experience for both the patient and the other people in the room.

From time to time I’ll create lyrics for the music on the spot, usually words that have some meaning for the friends and family, and on this occasion I sang, as I was leaving, “Music can lead the way back to speech”. On A return visit to the woman’s room a day or two later, I asked her if she wanted to listen again and she nodded. At the end of the visit, as I was leaving the room, she stopped me and uttered two words, “Thank you”.

This ability of music to create a neural pathway that can lead to the part of the brain where speech is housed has been shown by much research. I first read of it, after going through a similar experience with a patient, in an article published by renowned neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks. More information on his research can be found at his website, www.oliversacks.com.

2 Responses to ““Music Speaks Louder than Words…””

  1. Kayt Kennedy says:

    Thanks, Cathy, for your beautifully written & inspirational piece. I’m working on getting music to be a staple at the facility where my husband resides with the help of Oliver Sacks & “Musicophilia.”

  2. cathy says:

    Kayt, I have some other pieces by Oliver Sacks that may be even more useful than the stories from Musicophilia. They are stand-alone articles more about the direct benefits of music on patients with aphasia or memory disorders. even Dr. Sacks’ own personal experience!

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