The Medicine of Music

It’s something most everyone has in common. It’s a way we can connect to one another. It’s unifying and familiar. It’s therapy and healing. “It”…is music. And that is “medicine” for patients at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.

Angela Wibben, a board-certified music therapist at the Denver-based HealthONE hospitals, uses music intervention to assist patients with pain management, coping skills for a new diagnosis, emotional expression, and sometimes, end of life care.

“When I introduce music therapy to patients, they give me that look like, ‘what is it’ and ‘how is it going to help me,’” she explained. “But once you break down the walls and ask them what kind of music they like, it opens up all sorts of conversations about these milestone moments – a wedding song, a song that came on when their child was born, a song they remember while on vacation – and you can almost hear the soundtrack of their lives.”

That’s the comfort that music provides, and why it works so well as a healing agent, she said.

Music has demonstrated through research that it can help restore lost speech like in the case of former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, reduce the side effects of cancer therapy, aid in pain relief and improve the quality of life for dementia patients, as evidenced by the documentary “Alive Inside,” to name a few of the many benefits.

Like all board-certified music therapists, Wibben has to play a primary instrument (hers is percussion); be able to sing in front of people; and play the guitar and piano functionally. With those skills, the Colorado State University graduate then works one-on-one with children or adults through instruments, imagery, songwriting, life review, or relaxation methods, to help improve their mental or physical health and welfare.

“Children are learners, so our sessions at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children are a lot more active,” she said. “Playing with instruments, learning the ukulele or singing songs with patients helps them with anxiety, serves as a positive distraction, and normalizes the hospital environment. It also encourages them to come out of their rooms and meet their peers down the hall.”

Music therapy with adult patients at Presbyterian/St. Luke’s is open to those undergoing oncology treatment or anyone on the bone marrow transplant unit. Physicians, nurses, case managers and all of the teams on the floor provide feedback on who might benefit from music therapy, specifically patients experiencing loneliness, discomfort or pain, or are symptom-burdened with nausea or other side effects from cancer treatment.

“We focus on patients fighting cancer because they are in the hospital for longer periods of time and closed off from the outside world,” Wibben said. “So, songwriting is a tool we often use to help them convey how they’re coping or to tell their family how much they miss and love them.”

Wibben described one of her most profound music therapy interactions with a bone marrow transplant recipient and mother of two young boys. Together, they wrote and arranged a song for her sons to help them realize they are never alone and she would never leave them, even if the worst were to happen.

Music is an undeniable unifier. “We might not like the same music, but it’s rare that you’ll come across someone who doesn’t like music at all,” Wibben said. “It’s a way that we connect to people through celebration at weddings or ritual at funerals or motivation during a workout or even through community at concerts.”

Music therapy is about the human connection. The therapist learns how the patient has connected to music throughout their life, then builds on that relationship to help them accomplish their healing goals.

It’s comfort and a source of strength. It helps ease the pain. It soothes the soul. “It”…is music.

Presbyterian/St. Luke’s bone marrow transplant patient sings (above), accompanied by her husband & music therapist Angela on guitar. 

Angela Wibben is a music therapist for the Soul’s Palette, a non­profit orga­ni­za­tion that works through the Healing Arts Program at HCA-affiliated Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center and Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children.