When nothing else works, a Queens University program proves that sound might be the most effective medicine
In a room where everything beeps, the sound of Rose O’Toole’s flute creates a completely different atmosphere, as she plays for patient Lawanda Saunders at Carolinas Specialty Hospital in Pineville.
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A young woman wearing blue plastic gloves and carrying a silver flute walks into the hospital room of a semi-comatose middle-aged woman. “Hi,” the young woman says. “It’s Rose. I’m here to play my flute for you again if you’d like. Does that sound good?”
The semiconscious woman—we’ll call her Diane—doesn’t open her eyes, but she does nod.
The soft notes slice through the irritating beeping and humming of hospital machines and ringing of telephones in the hallway. A sense of calm settles in, not just in Diane’s room but all around it. People passing by slow down. Some even stop to listen for a moment. One doctor goes out of her way to thank Rose. “This is beautiful,” the doctor says. “Just beautiful.”
Diane isn’t the only patient Rose O’Toole has visited today at Carolinas Specialty Hospital. O’Toole played guitar and sang for two others—a semi-comatose man who woke up enough to try to sing along and flirt with her and another man who loved him some country tunes. She carries with her a guitar and a large, blue bag full of instruments, including two small drums, rhythm sticks, shakers, and a tambourine.
O’Toole improvises as she plays, but what she chooses to play is not random. She uses her training in human physiology—not unlike what nurses learn—to choose music that helps Diane. Hospitals are tough places to sleep, and a person in a semi-coma isn’t necessarily sleeping. To recover, Diane’s body and mind both need rest.
As O’Toole plays, Diane’s heart rate drops from the 80s to around 70, and she breathes slower and deeper, indicating she’s likely fallen asleep.
Best anthropologists can tell, humans have been making music for at least 30,000 years. Plato wrote about music giving the universe a soul and everything life. We use it today as a soundtrack for anything we want, and its power and influence in our culture go without saying. But O’Toole isn’t here just to entertain or provide nice background noise. She is a student being supervised by clinical coordinator Meg Johnson from Queens University’s music therapy program.
Music therapy doesn’t always work, and sometimes things can even go wrong, as O’Toole will experience in a moment with Diane. But it works often enough to take seriously, and that’s why O’Toole is here. She believes what many others have come to believe—music can heal us.
Music provides incredible psychological therapy. It helps us process and cope with emotions, and sometimes creating music can become the therapy itself, as banging on a drum or playing something beautiful on a piano can express things we feel. When therapy helps us work through negative feelings, and we become happier, our body becomes better at healing itself.
But music therapy goes beyond one’s emotions—it’s designed to help the body and whatever ails it.
Imagine hiking in the mountains. You know the trail well because you’ve hiked it for years. But then one day, on your way back home, something happens—the trail washes out, or collapses, or flat-out explodes. Suddenly, a trail you’ve known all your life is gone forever and you have no idea how to get home.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but that’s close to what happens in your brain after a major stroke or a traumatic brain injury.
Walking requires the activation of multiple areas of the brain, which signal to each other and send those signals through your body to your legs. This is a complex process that involves neurons firing throughout the brain. Same goes for eating, speaking, everything. These things only feel simple to most of us because our brains send commands faster than a light switch turns on a light, and we’ve been doing them all our lives.
When the brain gets injured—by stroke, for instance—and part of it dies, the neurological trail home washes out. The neurons can no longer find their way, so they can’t make the body do what the mind wants.
During the past couple of decades, the idea of using music to enhance rehab has risen in earnest.
Music therapists believe music helps build new trails around the mountain.
“Music activates across both sides of the brain, and front and back, simultaneously,” says Dr. Becky Engen, director of the Queens University music therapy program. “When there’s an area of disconnect—say, a stroke killed part of your brain—because of that activation all over the place, we’re able to still access and connect things through music that maybe couldn’t be connected otherwise.”
What they do goes beyond making music to motivate someone through a difficult rehabilitation session. Music therapists work with individual patients to provide them with their own personal rehab soundtrack, live and in person.
“But they’re not just providing background music,” Engen says. “That’s a piece of it, but it’s more. We can change the key, tempo, instrumentation, accents—we can manipulate the music to do what we need it to do. That’s the beauty of this: We can shape the music. It doesn’t respond to or accompany the movement. It leads the movement.”
And that music creates rhythms patients’ brains learn to follow as they learn or relearn things they either don’t know or forgot how to do.