How classical music helped to heal my mind and heart after surgery

HealingPhoto by Melvin E via Flickr

May 08, 2015

As I prepared during the summer for a hospital stay after surgery, I wondered if classical music might mitigate the stress, noise, cold air, frequent interruptions, painful blood draws, uncomfortable bed, and general activity in the hospital so I could better support my body's healing and leave the hospital sooner. I craved Mozart's music.

Classical music can have an emotional and psychological calming effect on people. Could it affect the body in the same way? I was already familiar with music therapy for neurological patients and in psychotherapy. Could music heal through its effect on the brain which then influences the rest of the body? There may be some evidence for music's healing power as USA Today has reported. I planned to find out for myself.

As I packed my Walkman with earphones and several favorite CDs — Sibelius, Bruckner, Bach — in my hospital bag, I discovered that I own only Mozart cassettes. Ah, well. My Walkman also has FM radio tuned to Classical MPR. I planned also to check the TV in my hospital room for audio-only music channels.

After successful surgery and a night of deep sleep, I discovered that the frequent interruptions — nurses, MD residents, lab techs, housekeeping — made it impossible to just lay back, close my eyes, and lose myself in the spaces between the notes of J.S. Bach's music. I soon reverted to watching TV and reading to pass the time between interruptions.

On the morning I was to leave the hospital, I developed a complication that delayed my discharge for two days. I was devastated. I asked my nurse for soothing music. She found a TV channel of meditation music. I listened to it for a long time. No one interrupted. My breathing calmed. My heart rate slowed. If I'd been monitoring my blood pressure, I'd bet it was dropping. My room was quiet, my bed warm. My nurse had closed the door, shutting out the voices.

What music have I used for healing my mind and heart? My favorite "healing" music is from J. S. Bach, his solo instrumental works, especially the solo cello suites and solo keyboard music.

My next choice is what I call "intimate" music, or chamber music, especially string quartets. Chamber music can be anything but quiet and soothing, of course, but what I love is the transparency of the lines. I imagine them representing different systems in my body and how they work together cooperatively to create something beautiful.

Finally, all through my hospital stay and for a week or two after I was home, I wanted to hear Mozart's musical voice. I needed his clean lines, his buoyancy, and above all, the hope I usually hear in his music for humanity. I would like to thank Classical MPR for playing so much Mozart during that time, especially when I was in the hospital. I fell in love with his clarinet quintet.

What did I learn during this hospital stay and recovery? Well, hospitals are not good places for listening to music — and they need to be. I believe classical music could have a calming effect on patients, which could be an important support to their physical healing. My home turned out to be the best place to listen to music for my healing — and I ordered the box set CDs of complete Mozart piano sonatas.

Cinda Yager writes essays, fiction, and two blogs in Minneapolis. She loves classical music and has just published an e-book novel set in the classical music world, Perceval's Secret.

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