Music is medicine to the ears, and more scientific research is backing it up.
On Saturday night, a number of doctors, surgeons, radiologists, musical therapists and other health-care professionals put off a fundraising variety show “Music Is Medicine” at Holy Heart Theatre in St. John’s.
They were backed up by a number of well-known local musicians, students and others.
Proceeds of the show go to benefit local charities “A Dollar A Day” and “Team Broken Earth.”
Dr. Paul Jeon, a radiologist and event co-organizer said music is known to have amazing therapeutic properties, whether being used to sooth a premature infant in intensive care or to comfort and elderly patient with Alzheimer’s disease.
“Scientific studies show how music changes the brain’s chemistry,” he said. “We know it can boost the body’s immune system, help in the treatment of depression, and reduce stress and anxiety.”
Along with Jeon, organizers included Dr. Doug Angel, Dr. Don Fitzpatrick and Dr. Andrew Furey. Retired physicians Dr. Alan Kwan, Dr. Falah Maroun and Dr. Al Felix were the night’s guests of honour for their contribution to healthcare in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“Scientific studies show how music changes the brain’s chemistry." — Dr. Paul Jeon
Renee White of St. John’s, an accredited musical therapist, also took part in the show.
She said music therapy is a long-standing profession, used after the Second World War to help calm veterans when medicine could only do so much.
White works with neurological patients using music to help stroke victims, people with Parkinsons, multiple sclerosis, autism and developmental disabilities.
“Research, all evidence based, shows music — whether actively playing music or sometimes listening to music — it actually has physical and biological effects on the body.”
White noted that music is sometimes used in burn units to help sooth patients during bandage changes and can help in a palliative care setting when families are in the final stages of losing a loved one.
“What we’ve noticed is there are systems in the brain neurologically wired differently for music. We haven’t figured out why,” she said. “For an example, when you have a stroke, and you have Aphasia — your loss of speech from your stroke injury which is quite common — you still retain the ability to sing.
“So lots of people use music therapists, and lots of speech language pathologists are aware of this fact as well, so occasionally we will be called in to do some of the rehab. So someone regaining their communication skills, we will actually begin teaching them to sing them. Just a simple request for something to eat we will put a melody underneath it and it kind of hardwires the brain and kind of gets that pathway working, and slowly we are able to phase out the melody or pitch, and leave you with the spoken word.”
Angel, also from St. John’s, did an undergraduate in music in 2003 with an honours in piano performance. He said he went to medical school after that and finished in 2008.
“On paper when you look at it, it seems two completely different areas. But there are probably a lot more similarities than people realize. There’s a lot of stuff out there in the literature of the relationship between music and medicine,” Angel said.
“I always had a passion and interest in medicine, and in surgery in particular, even when I was a music student. I had a plan to eventually end up in medicine.”
Angel said it is more common than ever that people go through some form of musical training before they end up in medicine.
"I think there is a lot in the medical world about what we as physicians learn from what musicians do in their training and apply it to our careers to help our patients a little more." — Dr. Doug Angel
“You are starting to see more and more people who have done undergraduate degrees in the arts as a prerequisite for medicine. So, it’s not as uncommon in this day and age as it may have been 20 years ago.
“There’s also good evidence showing that tools and skills that music students learn in their training are very applicable to the world of medicine and being a physician, on a number of levels. There are a lot of similarities in the culture of being a musician and being a physician in terms of the training and upbringing. I think there is a lot in the medical world about what we as physicians learn from what musicians do in their training and apply it to our careers to help our patients a little more.”
Jeon came from a musical family growing up in New Wes Valley. His mother was a music teacher and while his siblings learned instruments, he preferred taking up a hockey stick.
“If she had tried to teach me the Beatles instead of Beethoven, I probably would have stuck to it more,” he said. “I still have a passion for music. My sisters is a music teacher and all my family can play musical instruments, so I come by it honestly.”
Saturday's "Music Is Medicine" show was a revival of a similar event about 20 years ago that ran for three years.
Furey said the fundraising event is a good fit for both for Team Broken Earth and A Dollar A Day.
Furey recently returned from a trip with Team Broken Earth. The organization, that began in Newfoundland and as spread to the rest of Canada, the United States and beyond, sends volunteer doctors, nurses and medical personnel to developing countries to help people who lack proper health care.
“It’s incredibly rewarding,” he said. “Every time you leave one of the countries you feel like you’ve taken more than you’ve given.”
Furey’s mother was also a music teacher and he describes himself as “quasi musical.” He said he believes music can be an important part of medicine.
“I think it was something everyone speculated on for a long time, but just recently it has been shown with more scientific rigour,” he said. “We’ve always suspected that music, whether in the healing process or the spiritual process in medicine, is an incredibly important tool.”
Furey said events like Saturday’s concert show that people in the medical field want to give back to their communities.
“It highlights that music can be a part of medicine and it also highlights, for the general public, that our medical professionals, doctors and nurses, exist outside the walls of a hospital and they are able to give back in other ways, whether it’s through Team Broken Earth or a concert like this,” he said. “We are very lucky in Newfoundland and Labrador to have a multiple-talented medical pool to draw from.”