GRAMMY nomiated artist Jon Batitste performs for health care workers outside NYU Langone Hosipital during Black Lives Matter rall on June 13, 2020.
Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
Pulling Back The Curtain On Music's Magical Power To Heal
Throughout the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, there’s a simple reason your social media feed has been filled by your favorite musicians, broadcasting themselves playing everything from ad-hoc concerts from home to massive organized online music festivals: Music heals.
You can see this universal truth in action at hospitals like Penn Medicine in Philadelphia. As patients lie in bed, waiting, recovering, they can click on their TV and change it to a special channel and be treated to the sights and sounds of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has made archived performances available to them including everything from Haydn’s Symphony No. 100 and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 to a recording of Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6.
The latter pieces were played during the orchestra’s final public performance back on March 12 -- to an empty Verizon Hall, the orchestra’s 2,500-seat home venue in the city -- which marked the end of its live performances in the wake of the pandemic’s arrival.
“I’m incredibly proud of this work, which grows directly out of one of our programs called HEAR that stands for Health, Education, Access and Research,” explained the orchestra’s president and CEO Matías Tarnopolsky. “And the health aspect is very, very important. That’s what this is about.
“It’s the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra, shared with people when they’re probably at one of the lowest points of their lives, when they’re in the hospital," Tarnopolsky explained. "It can have such a positive effect - a positive, beneficial effect on the physical and psychological health."
Those effects are also quite beneficial for the hospital staff at Penn Medicine, too. Whenever the doctors and nurses have a moment to catch their breath from making their rounds, coping with the demands of emergency care or fighting the life-and-death battle to stabilize and save COVID-19 patients, you might find them huddled around a tablet or gazing up at one of the hospital TVs, still masked and in scrubs. Music can shift energies not only for those in need of healing, but also for the healing professionals.
How does this work? The answer arrives on many levels, body, mind and soul.
“We don't ever talk about what music does to our brain and body, we always think about what it does to our emotions and our spirit,” explains Tim Ringgold, an Orange County, CA-based board-certified music therapist. “We intuitively know that music helps us perform better as humans. What we may not realize, however, is that our connection to music is directly tied to rhythm. Rhythm is the organizing principle of the body, so we are wired to be musical because we are organized by rhythm.”
Rhythm is so inherent for musicians, it's often felt more than heard. But it's not just rhythm that provides musical healing.
"Melody, harmony, and rhythm stimulate the senses, which affects our breathing, heart rate, and other bodily functions. Music can promote a sense of tranquility—or it can rev you up," digital health, wellness, and lifestyle strategist, Karina Margit Erdelyi writes. "Music therapy, particularly when combined with talk therapy, boosts levels of the “feel-good hormone” dopamine. Associated with feelings of euphoria, motivation, bliss, and concentration, music can play a part in improving a number of symptoms, notably depression."
As musicians of all genres have taken to streaming from home during, partially out of necessity as touring has come to a halt, but also because they realize the healing power of their work, they instinctively know they're doing good for their listeners, even if they don't get the instant gratification of an audience's applause.
Take Miley Cyrus for example, who recently performed at Global Citizen’s “Global Goal: Unite for Our Future” livestream event from an empty Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. Cyrus tweeted that her cover of the Beatles’ “Help” was dedicated to, “Everyone who is working tirelessly for testing, treatments and vaccines so all of us can come together in places like this empty stadium.”
The power of music takes on a new superhero role within the context of a pandemic that’s now killed more than half a million people around the globe. As information and treatment approaches vary, music remains an aural elixir that ignores borders.
“The biggest barrier the world experiences is language,” rapper Duckwrth, who’s releasing his new album SuperGood in August, told us. “But one universal language the whole world speaks, is music... It’s a reason why choirs are the focal points of church services. Music holds an energy that, for some reason, heals. Could be a language of God, or maybe the bass just feels good when it slaps in the car. At the end of the day, music literally is the healer.”
No surprise, then, that hospitals and health care-related organizations have incorporated music more deeply into their work as the pandemic has lingered. It can range from using music for celebratory moments, such as all the times that hospital staff at Long Island’s Mount Sinai South Nassau have been playing “Here Comes the Sun” on the PA system whenever a coronavirus patient is discharged.
For more deep-seeded, memory-related ailments, music can serve as a great way to engage patients with familiar music from their lives.
“Music has the potential to create powerful connections for people living with Alzheimer’s or other dementia,” said Kate Meyer, vice president, global communications at the Alzheimer’s Association. “For some of these individuals, a recognizable song can evoke joy and engagement that transcends memory loss which may be occurring. As Alzheimer’s and dementia progresses, it is important for families to find ways to connect with loved ones experiencing cognitive decline, and for some, music offers that important opportunity.”
The Alzheimer’s Association has taken this connection through music one step further with their Music Moments campaign featuring artists such as The Head And The Heart, honoring friends and family impacted by the disease, and the recently released The Longest Day fundraising album. These projects provide new ways to engage artists and the public while advancing the cause and tapping into the connectivity and storytelling of music.
“Music also has the power to fuel conversations on important issues and in this case inspire people to learn more about Alzheimer’s, which is critical to reducing stigma and raising awareness," Meyer added.
Musicians on Call is another initiative that’s built an entire charity model around the idea that music can lift spirits and reduce stress. Through this program, which has been going for more than 20 years now, volunteer musicians have signed up to visit hospitals and give impromptu concerts for patients. And because of the social distancing requirements that the coronavirus pandemic has forced on us, a digital-focused spin-off effort has emerged called #MOCHeals, whereby musicians have been contributing performances to a master playlist that can be shared with participating hospitals.
The musicians include Philadelphia folk-rock artists Matthew Gordon and Sarah Napolitan, who contributed a cover of Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” as well as Jeiris Cook, who performed a cover of Randy Newman’s “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” and Rufus Wainwright, who performed his own song “The Maker Makes.”
About his own orchestra’s music that’s now accessible in hospitals around Philadelphia, Tarnopolsky added that classical music is especially suited to this kind of uplift of people right now. “Listening to an orchestra, a large group of string players and wind players — all of them together as one, it can be among the most powerful and I would even say transformative experiences. It just really touches the soul.”
Learn more about how you can donate to or apply for assistance via the Recording Academy's and MusiCares' COVID-19 Relief Fund.
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