Music’s Increasing Presence in Hospitals

Portia Diwa, harp therapist, Institute for Health and Healing

Thirty years ago, it was unusual to find live music in hospitals. With advanced technology on the rise, music seemed to have no place in a clinical setting. But today, more doctors now acknowledge that even the most sophisticated medical treatment cannot address all pain and suffering. In the Bay Area, many hospitals now welcome live music as an integral part of care at the end of life. “The nurses and the doctors want to care for the patient,” said Portia Diwa, a harp therapist with the California Pacific Medical Center, “When they know there’s not that much they can do for them and they can offer harp music, they’re quite excited that they can offer something of comfort.”

Since the 1990s, several Bay Area hospitals have invited musicians to play or sing at the bedside. For dying patients, Celtic harps and vocal ensembles are frequently used. Music at the end of life is a form of palliative medicine. The goal is to help ease suffering and provide comfort for patients and their families, when cure is no longer possible.

Diwa says like any medicine, one size doesn’t fit all. The music needs to be tailored to what the patient finds relaxing. “I would experiment a little bit, to see if there’s a mode or chord that the patient might resonate with or that seems to be more peaceful in that space,” said Diwa, “And once I found what that resonant tone was, then I would choose a song that’s in that mode.”

Patrice Haan, Executive Director, Healing Muses

Studies have found that music can lower blood pressure and respiration rates.3 Music can increase endorphins, reducing pain.4 “I have seen first-hand how people calm down, slow down, and respond,” said Patrice Haan, executive director of Healing Muses, a nonprofit that provides healing harp music at the bedside. For patients who are dying, the ultimate goal of healing harpists is entrainment,5 a process aimed at synchronizing the patient’s vital signs with the music. “We meet them where they are, then sedating them, slowing them down,” said Haan, “The pulse slows down. The tonal range of the music often becomes smaller.” She added, “Lullabies are a perfect example—maybe a couple of notes, with a lulling rhythm behind it.”

Brain wave studies suggest that even non-responsive people in comas and those near death can still hear sounds.6 Hearing may be the last sense lost before death. Haan remembers playing for a young woman severely damaged in a car accident. “[She] seemed to be incapable of any kind of response,” said Haan, “And yet—I remember watching her breathing a tune to the music—watching those two things synchronize and then watching her eyelids start to flutter. I’m utterly convinced she was hearing it.”

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