Music as medicine

The beep of ventilators and infusion pumps, the hiss of oxygen, the whir of carts and the murmur of voices as physicians and nurses make rounds — these are the typical noises a premature infant hears spending the first days of life in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). While the sounds of such life-saving equipment are tough to mute, a new study suggests that some sounds, such as lullabies, may soothe pre-term babies and their parents, and even improve the infants’ sleeping and eating patterns, while decreasing parents’ stress (Pediatrics, 2013).

Researchers at Beth Israel Medical Center’s Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine conducted the study, which included 272 premature babies 32 weeks gestation or older in 11 mid-Atlantic NICUs. They examined the effects of three types of music: a lullaby selected and sung by the baby’s parents; an “ocean disc,” a round instrument, invented by the Remo drum company, that mimics the sounds of the womb; and a gato box, a drum-like instrument used to simulate two-tone heartbeat rhythms. The two instruments were played live by certified music therapists, who matched their music to the babies’ breathing and heart rhythms.

The researchers found that the gato box, the Remo ocean disc and singing all slowed a baby’s heart rate, although singing was the most effective. Singing also increased the amount of time babies stayed quietly alert, and sucking behavior improved most with the gato box, while the ocean disc enhanced sleep. The music therapy also lowered the parents’ stress, says Joanne Loewy, the study’s lead author, director of the Armstrong center and co-editor of the journal Music and Medicine.

“There’s just something about music — particularly live music — that excites and activates the body,” says Loewy, whose work is part of a growing movement of music therapists and psychologists who are investigating the use of music in medicine to help patients dealing with pain, depression and possibly even Alzheimer’s disease. “Music very much has a way of enhancing quality of life and can, in addition, promote recovery.”
While music has long been recognized as an effective form of therapy to provide an outlet for emotions, the notion of using song, sound frequencies and rhythm to treat physical ailments is a relatively new domain, says psychologist Daniel J. Levitin, PhD, who studies the neuroscience of music at McGill University in Montreal. A wealth of new studies is touting the benefits of music on mental and physical health. For example, in a meta-analysis of 400 studies, Levitin and his postgraduate research fellow, Mona Lisa Chanda, PhD, found that music improves the body’s immune system function and reduces stress. Listening to music was also found to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery (Trends in Cognitive Sciences, April, 2013).