Music can convey feelings that are otherwise inexpressible. It can benefit the health, wellness, and healing of both patients and clinicians.
It was 8:29 AM. I was running 10 minutes over on a 20 minute follow up. I needed to keep moving. The patient was a middle aged man who I’d been seeing for 20 years. He’d also referred his wife and two adult children soon after I became his primary care physician. His wife had been a loving matriarch and the emotional glue in the household. With grace she survived initial breast cancer treatment but then succumbed five years ago.
As his grieving evolved, he started to show me videos of him playing guitar. He often sang about his wife. That morning, he wanted to share two new songs. He hit play and I see him in neat collared shirt, singing at his kitchen table. He strummed three chord verses and crooned a chorus. I was honored to hear it. I was now running 25 minutes late, but I pulled out my cell phone and showed him myself playing Tom Waits’ “Waltzing Matilda.” My patient listened, and as I got to the final verse, I said, “These lyrics are my mom. She passed suddenly when I was an intern five years before I met you.”
And goodnight to the street sweepers
The night watchman flame keepers and goodnight,
He looked up after the last note and shook my hand. With his other hand, he gave a couple of gentle squeezes of my right shoulder. His eyes told me the music said what I couldn’t.
And that’s how music is medicine. It’s a way to express the inexpressible and travel to a place and state of mind otherwise unattainable. The connections made in medicine are brought by bearing witness together; when that bearing witness escapes all verbal sharing, we can always turn to music to reach each other.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.