The Healing Power of Musicby Balfour M. Mount, M.D.
/ September 9, 2004
Music has touched the human soul across all boundaries of
time, space, and genre. Indeed, the healing power of music has been documented
for millennia. An account involving two of the legendary kings of Israel is
thought to have been written during the reign of Solomon. "And whenever the evil
spirit from God was upon Saul, David took the lyre and played it with his hand;
so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him."
Saul's experience is echoed in our daily lives, leading William Congreve to
observe, "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast," and Yo-Yo Ma to comment,
"Healing? I think that is what music is all about. Don't you?"
Music and healing at the bedside
Anne was admitted to the Palliative Care Unit of
Montreal's Royal Victoria Hospital with unrelenting back pain due to breast
cancer involving her spine. Within days our worst fears were realized. Her
symptoms worsened and, in spite of treatment, she became paralyzed from the
waist down. A single mother with a new mortgage, precarious employment, and
strained finances, Anne was devastated. Her perennial optimism evaporated and a
sense of inadequacy mushroomed within our palliative care team.
Late one morning, during my daily ward rounds, perhaps two
or three weeks after this crisis, I walked into Anne's room and sank into the
chair by her bed. Our brief chat about her current symptoms was followed by the
silence that arises from mutual recognition of shared impotence: not much to
say! Groping, I asked, "Do you like music, Anne?"
"Yes, I do," she replied.
"What kind?" Her eyes met mine in a glance that conveyed
her uncertainty as to whether she should tell me the truth. Did she trust me
enough? There was a pause. Then, almost in a whisper, she said,
"Really?" I exclaimed. "Well, do you know, in 1957 I went
to his concert in Ottawa?"
Her response was explosive. With eyes wide in
astonishment, she fairly shouted, "YOU were at the Ottawa concert?!" I
had never previously admitted that I had attended an Elvis Presley concert, but
her evident awe was encouraging.
"Yeah," I found myself responding, "I was at the Ottawa
What followed was one of the most intense, deeply engaging
conversations of my life. It probably lasted about half an hour. I told her
about that memorable night, so long ago. And Anne told me about the King, his
generosity, and the sense of accompaniment she had always experienced through
his music. She was vibrant, fully engaged, and deeply probing for further
details. As I left her room, her face was radiant. I felt privileged, like I had
been on sacred ground. The significance of our conversation for Anne was
evident. It was not just a transient "feel-good" thing. It was much more than
that. For the first time since becoming paralyzed she had experienced a sense of
wholeness and the exhilaration of being fully alive. No one attempting to offer
hope could have given to Anne what she had now experienced. Though paraplegic,
she could be as fully alive as she had ever been.
Anne's experience and those of other palliative care
patients led our team into research areas that posed new questions. What
determines quality of life? What is the significance of the inner life and what
is its impact on illness? What is healing? How do these issues relate to
Quality of life and its determinants
"Quality of Life" (QOL) may be defined as subjective
well-being. It is the basis for answering the question, "How are you today?
How does it feel to be in your skin?" QOL is a composite assessment that is
influenced by all aspects of personhood – physical, psychosocial, and spiritual.
Surprisingly, physical health contributes relatively little to QOL. For
instance, emotional well being and life satisfaction (two
constructs that determine QOL) have been found to be the same for people with
serious physical disability as for those in the general population. Furthermore,
QOL significantly improves in response to skilled, compassionate whole-person
care, even in the face of imminent death. The existential or spiritual domain
has been found to be a major contributor to QOL, particularly in cases
involving life threatening illness.
The relationship of music to QOL and
Our QOL varies from moment to moment along a continuum
that extends from suffering and anguish at one extreme to a sense of integrity
and wholeness at the other. Healing involves a response shift toward the
latter. What enables an experience of healing such as Anne's? Wisdom traditions,
depth psychology, and recent research suggest several factors. Healing occurs
when we are drawn into the present moment and away from the ruminations about
past and future that consistently dominate our lives. It requires a letting go
of literal, rational, linear patterns of thought and an acceptance of an
intuitive, imaginal, metaphoric way of experiencing reality (expressed in some
traditions as a shift from head to heart). It is associated with a sense of
enriched personal meaning and a sense of connectedness. We may experience these
healing connections at four levels: at an inner level, between ego and
"Self"/"Deep Centre"/the essential self (the "individuation" of Carl Jung);
secondly, healing connections with others, in community (the I/thou relating of
Martin Buber); thirdly, connectedness to the phenomenal world, as perceived
through our senses -- for example, in response to music, nature, long distance
running, the creative arts; finally, through a sense of connection to ultimate
meaning/God/"the More," however that is perceived by the individual.
Music, when it is truly healing, may be acting through any
or all of these four paths to cut through our carefully constructed defences,
thus liberating a deeper appreciation and acceptance of mystery and the
potential for healing that lies within. Newtonian physics told us that at base
we are particulate; quantum physics, that we are vibratory. It seems that the
reality is that we are not either/or, but both/and. Perhaps, in its vibratory
nature, music opens us to a greater appreciation of our essential connectedness
to the cosmos, our oneness with all that is.
Balfour M. Mount MD is Eric M. Flanders Professor of
Palliative Medicine, McGill University.