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Bringing Classical Music to the Medical Clinic

A Minnesota experiment in which live musicians perform for waiting patients gets high marks from the staff.
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(Photo: Gisella Klein/Flickr)

(Photo: Gisella Klein/Flickr)

Medical offices can be sterile, intimidating places—environments that make the already-unpleasant task of waiting to see a doctor even more stressful.

Young classical musicians, faced with a difficult economic reality that has seen the bankruptcy of numerous orchestras, are looking for new places to hone their art, and new ways to connect with an often indifferent community.

Two distinct problems, but newly published research describes an innovative initiative that may help solve both: live classical music in the waiting areas of medical facilities.

In the journal Musicae Scientiae, Michael Silverman and Jon Hallberg of the University of Minnesota describe a small program they created and implemented in which music students—specifically, classical pianists and guitarists—spent time  performing in a primary care clinic waiting area.

An intimate setting, an appreciative audience, a chance to bring a little joy and creativity into people's lives at a time they could really use it—what's not to like? 

Subsequent interviews with staff members of the clinic found their reaction was overwhelmingly positive. So much so, the researchers write, that "all participants desired an increase in the frequency of live classical music in the clinic."

The program began in November 2008 at a small urban medical center in Minneapolis, which typically sees 30 to 40 patients per day. The medical director purchased an electronic piano for the young players, who were in the process of getting their doctorates in music. An early attempt to add cellists to the mix was scrapped—the instrument proved too loud and distracting—but classical guitar was found to be an excellent addition.

Four years into the project, Silverman, the director of music therapy at the University of Minnesota, and Hallberg, the medical director of the clinic, decided to interview clinic staff members to get their feedback. Those who agreed to participate, including a physician, the manager, two physician assistants, and two nurses—all gave positive assessments.

Many noted that "the live music did not over power the clinic," the researchers write. "The piano and guitar tend to be ideal instruments for providing this type of blending background music." Not surprising, students working toward degrees in collaborative piano—that is, those looking to work professionally with singers or other instrumentalists to play chamber music—"tended to be uniquely sensitive to this organic blend," and were able to "augment an environment" without dominating it.

"We absolutely think it creates a calming atmosphere for the patients and us," volunteered a physician assistant. "Just about every patient comments on it."

"I think it can calm people—get their minds off themselves in a way if they're stressed or unhappy or whatever—which is what most people are when they come here," added a nurse. "It speaks to the soul."

"One of the unanticipated results of the music program was that patients often play the piano in the clinic waiting room (when the actual musicians aren't there)," the researchers report, adding that this "seemed to enhance staff abilities to initiate non-medical discussions with patients, potentially increasing rapport, trust, and therapeutic alliance."

"Another unanticipated result," they add, "was that patients often remained in the clinic after their appointments to enjoy the live music." When was the last time you hung around your doctor's office after an exam?

The researchers did not interview the student musicians, but from what those performers told the physicians' assistants, their experience was quite positive. "Many students reported it was, unexpectedly, one of the highlights of their (doctoral) work," the researchers write.

An intimate setting, an appreciative audience, a chance to bring a little joy and creativity into people's lives at a time they could really use it—what's not to like? Plenty of research has found music helps people heal; here is one unobtrusive way to jump-start that process.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.