Series: Beyond COVID | Story 5

How can music help people feel better?

"Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life."

- Berthold Auerbach

As a medical student, Dr. Benjamin Levy had grown close to a patient with severe heart failure who had spent weeks in the hospital waiting for a heart transplant.

Also a cellist, he brought in his instrument one day in a effort to ease the patient's anxiety. His tour schedule quickly expanded as he recognized the therapeutic power the music had.

"The nurses kept bringing me to other patients in their units," he said.

Levy will present the virtual program Music Inspires Health May 24 as part of Wellness House's Wellness Evolving series (see Page 28 for details). Levy said there's something about a melody that can ease the dissonance of life, such as the cancer journey Wellness House clients are navigating.

"(Music) gets their mind off their cancer diagnosis and their worry and fear," he said. "It's one of the few ways that they can have an experience with their family that's so unique and loving. You're literally bringing an instrument into their room."

Levy, a gastroenterologist at University of Chicago Medicine, employed the same treatment during his residency to help calm a patient being transferred to hospice care.

"The patient was really nervous about leaving the hospital," Levy said. "When a patient goes to hospice, they realize it's the end of their medical care."

He offered to check in on the patient with his instrument in tow.

"The patient loved that idea. It's giving them something to look forward to," he said. "I saw an opportunity to use (music) in this way and to improve the quality of the patient experience."

Music has a measurable physical effect, he noted, and also can provide a much-needed mental break.

"Your heart rate will slow down. It allows you to enter a different psychological state, and it gives them a moment when they don't have to think of other things," he said.

This was not a dimension of health care Levy envisioned when he chose to become a physician. He earned his bachelor's in music prior to entering medical school at Emory University in Atlanta, next to the Centers of Disease Control. Stirred to promote public health, Levy leveraged his music background to launch a nationwide series of concerts that also served to teach young people about HIV/STD prevention and other health matters. It was called the Music Inspires Health tour.

He also has used music to communicate health information. During the pandemic, he put together a virtual Concerts & Cocktails series in April 2020 to encourage masking and physical distancing. In March of 2021, he used the same strategy to elevate Colon Cancer Awareness Month.

He said he looks forward to playing a few songs for Music Inspires Health program participants.

"Music has a very calming sense to it and patients emotionally connect to it - whether they have a background in music or not."

- by Ken Knutson

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean