In the days and months leading up to COVID-19, the numerous departments, halls, and campuses of Baystate Medical Center often bustled with volunteers (450 total across volunteer programs). While their responsibilities were varied, one of the most important was simply spending time with patients.
“Having to stay at the hospital can be very isolating and lonely,” explains Marie Saunders, manager of Volunteer Services. “The gift of time and attention our volunteers were able to extend had a tremendous impact on patient well-being. But when COVID hit, we had to pause the program. Suddenly, patients who were already stressed, had yet another stressor — COVID — to deal with. When our visitor policy changed because of the pandemic, we found our patients were missing the interaction of volunteers and were feeling more isolated."
So when Saunders learned about the Community Music School of Springfield’s (CMSS) ‘Somebody Played for Me’ program, she didn’t hesitate to reach out and make a connection. The program ran for a portion of 2021, and patients responded positively to it.
What is the healing power of music?
Poet Robert Browning wrote that "He who hears music feels his solitude peopled all at once."
During a time of increased social isolation, people are at risk for a multitude of health problems, including increased stress and cardiovascular risk.
Ample scientific evidence suggest that music can be beneficial in a host of ways, from helping improve the recovery of motor and cognitive function in stroke patients to reducing symptoms of depression in patients suffering from dementia.
Here are three ways music can be healthy and healing:
1. Music Reduces Stress
Chronic stress is known to have negative consequences for physical health, including harmful effects on the immune, digestive, sleep, reproductive and cardiovascular systems.
Research shows that listening to certain types of music (especially music with a slower tempo) can help calm people down, even during stressful events – during labor for childbirth, for example.
In one study, researchers used music as a pre-medication for patients before surgery. In this case, music was were more successful in reducing stress than an orally administered drug.
2. Music Decreases Pain
While researches don't yet know why, studies have shown that music can be a highly successful method for pain management.
A 2013 study with people diagnosed with fibromyalgia (characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain) found that those listening to music experienced significantly less pain.
Researchers have even studied whether or not music's pain-reducing effects are due to placebo—failed to find a link between expectation and music's ability to reduce pain (meaning that the benefits of music amount to more than the power of suggestion).
3. Music Can Improve Memory
Some might say that music is a distraction when you're trying to concentrate on a project or task. On the contrary, research has shown that music can benefit processing and recall.
One study looked at the effects of background music played during another activity and found that background music tended to improve recall.
Other research has shown that listening to music can benefit people with Alzheimer's disease and dementia. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Musical memories are often preserved in Alzheimer's disease because key brain areas linked to musical memory are relatively undamaged by the disease."
While music cannot reverse the effects of dementia, it can provide emotional health benefits.
Music plays on — even through COVID
Because of the many health benefits of music, the ‘Somebody Played for Me’ program was a perfect fit for the needs of patients and the aims of CMSS. CMSS, a design partner in the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s CultureRx Initiative, is committed to improving health and well-being through cultural participation. As part of that effort, CMSS faculty members regularly performed at senior centers throughout the region.
But, as Mary Ellen Miller, a founding CMSS faculty member recalls, “When COVID hit in March, we were no longer permitted to enter the various centers and the program ground to a halt. It was a very sad and quiet period for us all. But shortly thereafter, I ran into a friend who was lamenting not being able to properly celebrate her mother’s 90th birthday.” Miller, a vocalists, says, “I offered to call and sing for her mother on her birthday. It was wonderful. She said it was the best gift she ever got. And, like a light bulb, I realized the music didn’t have to stop for anyone.”
In short order, CMSS musicians were once again playing for seniors at area senior and elder centers — only this time via telephone — through the newly dubbed ‘Somebody Played for Me’ program.
Improving the patient experience, one performance at a time
Baystate’s Saunders says, “When we came to understand what an amazing job the program does of harnessing the healing power of music and creating a much-needed sense of connectedness for people in isolating circumstances, we knew that we needed it for our patients.”
Launched in early 2021, the weekly music program connected patients at Baystate Medical Center and Baystate Children’s Hospital with musicians via a tablet provided on each unit. For each half-hour session, patients could indicate a preference for a type of instrument, including violin, classical guitar, harp, and vocals. At the appointed hour, they were treated to a private performance followed by a brief Q&A session with the musician.
Among the first patients to participate in the program was Ronald Desmarais, 74, who was treated to a live harp performance. “I thought it was just wonderful,” says Desamarais. Acknowledging that being a patient can be very isolating, especially during COVID, he said he found the performance to be, “very relaxing and comforting. It definitely made my stay more enjoyable.”
Saunders notes, “We’re thrilled to be able provide music and culture to our patients while at the same time building stronger connections with people in our community. It’s such a simple concept but it’s allowing us to do so much for so many at a time when our options are limited.”