Magazine article The Spectator

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Magazine article The Spectator

Just What the Doctor Ordered

Article excerpt

Ariane Bankes explores the therapeutic effect of music and art in hospitals and hospices

Is music good for you? Can art bring down your blood pressure, as well as raising it? If so, what sort of music, and what kind of art? These are questions that are asked with ever greater frequency as hard evidence of the therapeutic effect of the arts accumulates from research as well as from anecdote, and now demands to be taken seriously.

Ever since Orpheus tamed the creatures of the Underworld with his lyre, and Odysseus lashed himself to the mast to resist the Song of the Sirens, we have been aware of the power and balm of music.

Hearing is the first of our five senses to develop in the womb: by 16 weeks a foetus has rudimentary sound recognition, and by 26 weeks it can discern and respond to the sound of its mother's voice - it has a sense of music, in effect. As our first link with the outside world, music remains our deepest mode of connection at both conscious and unconscious levels.

Whether your personal preference is Mozart or the Arctic Monkeys, 'We are all hard-wired to be musical, ' in the words of Professor Paul Robertson, founder of the Medici Quartet and an expert in this field.

'And at the risk of sounding like an advertisement for beer, music engages parts of the brain that drugs and other therapies just don't reach.' The regions devoted to memory, for instance:

music and the memories it evokes can be the last bulwark against the meaninglessness of dementia, and for many it is a lifeline out of the depths of depression.

It is a short step from recognising this to harnessing live music in a therapeutic setting, by sending musicians in to play in hospital wards and hospices. As a new initiative Barts and the London NHS Trust now run regular concerts across 25 wards, from cancer to intensive care. With the eerie humming and bleeping of medical machinery as a backdrop, one might now encounter a harpist or guitarist (or a sitar player, perhaps) strumming away gently - and the effect on the patients is remarkable. They are soothed, distracted, reminded of happier times, sometimes requesting favourite tunes or humming along with the music.

The effect on the performers is remarkable, too: one could say that the therapy works both ways. To move from a concert at the Wigmore Hall one night, with rows of expectant and demanding ears actively attuned, to a ward full of patients of passive and uncertain receptivity may be a daunting prospect, but every musician I have talked to has spoken of its rewards.

Not just the smiles, appreciation and curiosity of individual patients and staff - and if the staff are happy, the patients benefit too - but the lightening of mood, the almost tangible sense of engagement, which is after all what every musician hopes to achieve.

The whole nature of performance changes with the ill; whereas a certain degree of flair is de rigueur on the concert platform, the aim here is to minimise the 'star' quality and to reach out to patients without artifice. Musicians who play in hospices and to the dying make sure they avoid any element of 'performance' at all.

It isn't always easy, and can be emotionally draining all round. Sometimes patients are too withdrawn or depressed to want any kind of music, and it is of course crucial to be able to opt out. Professor Robertson points out that, since illness traps us in a process over which we have little or no control, the ability to step in and out of music makes it a 'locus of control', which can empower us, helping to make us feel better. …

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