Musical healing

Friday, April 25, 2008 | 3:50 p.m. CDT; updated 12:36 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008


COLUMBIA — Music has the power to trigger vivid memories or transport listeners to their first hearing of a particular song. It can intensify an emotion or change a listener’s mood altogether. The ancient Greeks even believed that music could affect character and behavior.

Physician and conductor Samuel Wong takes it further: He believes music has the power to heal.

On Thursday evening, Wong, president and founder of the Global Music Healing Institute, delivered the 2008 Carlos Perez-Mesa, MD, Lectureship in Medical Humanities about his research in music medicine. Wong was the eighth lecturer in the annual series, established in memory of the MU physician to highlight the connections between medicine and the fine arts.

“If he could be here today, he would be pleased,” Bill Bondeson, a friend of Perez-Mesa, told the gathering at Reynolds Alumni Center. “Music was among the closest things to his heart.”

Wong’s personal history is a marriage of music and medicine.

After the pianist graduated from Harvard Medical School, he dedicated his life to music. He has served as a guest conductor for the New York Philharmonic, London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the Japan Philharmonic Orchestra, among others. He returned to medicine, however, and felt his life come full circle in 1999 when he published an article in the Harvard Medical Alumni Bulletin on the healing power of music.

“I want to put music medicine firmly on the scientific table,” Wong said. He hopes to legitimize the field — which he said does not deserve the “new age voodoo” label it has been given bysome — through scientific research and experiments.

He discussed one such experiment conducted by Max Hilz, a neurology professor at New York University, which measured music’s effect on a coma patient. Hilz played a recording of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” and recorded an immediate and dramatic spike in the patient’s heart rate, blood pressure and breathing. Musicians might not find the results surprising, given that the work’s 1913 debut nearly incited a riot, according to an article by Pierre Grondines in La Scena Musicale magazine.

Similarly, he said, surgery patients listening to calming music such as selections from Mozart or Rimsky-Korsakov have been shown to need less anesthesia than those without music.

Wong believes music can be used to reach patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s by triggering dormant memories that the patient associates with a particular song. For example, someone who hears a church hymn from their childhood being played might then recall childhood memories.

He said music therapy has shown remarkable results in helping patients who have suffered a stroke.

“Music can be a bridge that carries us over derelict neurological landscapes,” Wong said. Some stroke victims he worked with at Beth Abraham Hospital in New York were unable to speak but had learned to sing what they wanted to say. Wong called it a functional “recitative,” referring to the singing dialogue used in opera.

“If the left side of the brain is damaged, then utilize the right side,” said Wong. “It can help bypass defective brain circuitry.”

Similarly, he discussed how music could be used to socialize patients who suffered depression or anti-social behavior.

“Subjects with autism are notoriously anti-social because of their difficulty speaking,” Wong said. He thinks that musical interaction, such as a drum circle, can help patients learn to socialize through a non-verbal method. These interactions could possibly lead to more traditional forms of socialization.

“It’s all about harnessing a different sense or part of the brain to replace another,” he explained. Wong said more research should be done, but that he hopes other members of the medical community will start to see the scientific value of what music medicine has to offer.

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