As program director for the Nashville branch of the charitable organization Musicians On Call, Kate Epley has witnessed firsthand the seemingly miraculous impact music can sometimes have on hospital patients. On any given day, Epley schedules and coordinates more than 150 musicians and guides who volunteer to perform music for patients at their hospital bedsides.

“The most common response we get is someone telling us we’ve simply brightened their day,” says Epley, who notes that Musicians On Call has played for more than 50,000 patients in Nashville, Tenn.-area hospitals between 2007 and 2011. “But some incredible things have happened, too. We’ve seen patients come out of comas after we played for them. Others have spoken for the first time. There was one patient who had been refusing to cooperate with caregivers. After our musician sang to her, her whole attitude toward the nurses and physicians changed.”

While Epley is quick to point out that what Musicians On Call does is considered entertainment, not music therapy, there’s no disputing that the organization’s work lends credence to the growing number of studies that document the benefits of incorporating music into healthcare.

One of the more recent studies, published in the journal Critical Care Medicine, centered on the effect that Mozart piano sonatas had on intensive care patients who were being assisted by mechanical breathing machines. As compared to a control group, patients exposed to the Mozart sonatas experienced reduced blood pressure, lower heart rates and less need for sedation.

Dr. Claudius Conrad, who led the study, observed that patients who listened to Mozart also showed a decrease in stress hormones and an increase in a certain growth hormone that curbs inflammation and regulates metabolism. “If patients could be exposed to music in the ICU … they would survive more often, [and] they would leave the ICU faster,” Dr. Conrad later told USA Today. “It would also reduce costs.”

Other recent studies have further demonstrated the healing power of music. Victims of severe strokes who listened to recorded music for a minimum of one hour a day experienced faster recovery of verbal memory than those who did not listen to music, according to a study published in Brain. Researchers at the Chinese University of Hong Kong noted that hypertensive patients who were prescribed 25 minutes of music a day benefited from a 12-point average drop in systolic pressure and a five-point drop in diastolic pressure, as compared to a control group. Caregivers at Beth Israel’s neo-natal intensive care unit have observed that babies born prematurely “eat more, sleep more and gain more weight” if they are exposed to at least one hour of music a day.

Increasingly, health service providers are taking notice of such studies and conclusions. A 2007 survey conducted by the Society for the Arts in Healthcare determined that 35 percent of healthcare facilities in the United States offered some type of music therapy to patients, and that figure continues to rise.

Dr. Alice Cash, founder of Healing Music Enterprises, is one of a growing number of physicians who have dedicated themselves to this burgeoning field. Dr. Cash has spent more than two decades raising awareness about the health benefits of music and empowering patients to incorporate music into their care.

“I particularly enjoy helping patients pick out music for surgery,” Cash says, noting that she typically puts together three playlists for surgical patients—one for the waiting area, one for the operating table and one for the recovery room. “Having that music in the recovery area comforts them by letting them know they’ve [come through] the surgery,” she notes.

To better facilitate the use of music, many healthcare providers are now partnering with BMI, Broadcast Music Inc. Founded in 1939, the not-for-profit organization is free to join, has an open-door policy, and currently represents and licenses the compositions of more than 500,000 songwriters. Representing the work of such a large body of composers allows the organization to offer blanket licensing agreements, as well as substantial discounts for healthcare providers. Working in partnership with BMI, HealthTrust has secured a 20 percent discount on licensing fees for HealthTrust members. This discount, along with the blanket agreement, grants unlimited use of more than 7.5 million musical works and allows music to be implemented as a part of patient healthcare in all HealthTrust facilities.

Such an agreement allows organizations such as Musicians On Call to focus on what they do best: helping people. “Patients who have been in a hospital for weeks or months sometimes lose a sense of life outside the healthcare facility,” Epley says. “When we play at their bedside, they get that human connection to the outside world. I should also point out that the gratification flows both ways. Sometimes, after playing, a musician will tell me, ‘You know, I think I got as much from that as the patient did.’ ”

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