Music therapy was the last thing that Julia Justo, a graphic artist who immigrated to New York from Argentina, expected when she went to Mount Sinai Beth Israel Union Square Clinic for treatment for cancer in 2016. But it quickly calmed her fears about the radiation therapy she needed to go through. The fears were causing her severe anxiety.
“I felt the difference right away, I was much more relaxed,” she said. Justo, who has been free of cancer for more than four years, continued to visit the New York City hospital every week before the onset of the pandemic to work with Rossetti, whose gentle guitar riffs and visualisation exercises helped her deal with ongoing challenges, including getting a good night’s sleep. Nowadays the two keep in touch mostly by email.
The healing power of music — lauded by everyone from philosophers Aristotle and Pythagoras to American folk singer Pete Seeger — is now being validated by medical research. It is used in targeted treatments for asthma, autism, depression and more, including brain disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, epilepsy and stroke. Live music has made its way into some surprising venues, including oncology waiting rooms to calm patients as they wait for radiation and chemotherapy. It also greets newborns in some neonatal intensive care units and comforts the dying in hospice.
While musical therapies are rarely stand-alone treatments, they are increasingly used as adjuncts to other forms of medical treatment. They help people cope with their stress and mobilise their body’s own capacity to heal. “Patients in hospitals are always having things done to them,” Rossetti said. “With music therapy, we are giving them resources that they can use to self-regulate, to feel grounded and calmer. We are enabling them to actively participate in their own care.”
Even in the coronavirus pandemic, Rossetti has continued to perform live music for patients. He said he has seen increases in acute anxiety since the onset of the pandemic, making musical interventions, if anything, even more impactful than they were before the crisis. Mount Sinai has also recently expanded its music-therapy program to include work with the medical staff, many of whom are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder from months of dealing with COVID, with live performances offered during their lunch hour.
It’s not just a mood booster. A growing body of research suggests that music played in a therapeutic setting has measurable medical benefits. “Those who undergo the therapy seem to need less anxiety medicine, and sometimes surprisingly get along without it,” said Dr. Jerry Liu, assistant professor of radiation oncology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. A review of 400 research papers conducted by Daniel Levitin at McGill University in 2013 concluded that “listening to music was more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety prior to surgery.”
“Music takes patients to a familiar home base within themselves. It relaxes them without side effects,” said Dr. Manjeet Chadha, director of radiation oncology at Mount Sinai Downtown in New York.
Schiffman is a journalist with NYT©2021
The New York Times