Consider the hospital soundscape and how it may impact patients’ well-being. To create a more soothing stay, silence or turn down monitors if possible.
Have you ever tuned into what a hospital room sounds like? Take a moment and listen.
A monitor beeps incessantly while daytime TV blares in the background. The patient’s family is having a tense, muffled conversation by the window, and the blood pressure cuff hisses. A clinician’s footsteps pass by the door, and you hear the crinkle of their isolation gown. An IV bag drips and the patient’s breathing thrums in and out, in and out, in and out. In this cacophony of sound, there’s also a heavy silence—the silence of waiting for updates, for progress to be made, for discharge, for home. An alarm screams, jarring everyone in the room to attention, and a nurse runs into the room. This is the soundtrack of the hospital.
But when I walk into a patient’s room, I get to bring a different kind of music with me. The guitar on my back and the instruments I carry aren’t for poking and prodding—they’re for playing. In my work as a board certified music therapist, I have the honor of sharing and creating music with people during some of the most vulnerable moments of their lives.
I’ve played songs requested by patients or their families while they sing, dance, or cry. I’ve supported children through painful procedures, used live music to decrease a sedated infant’s heart rate, and banged as hard as I could on a drum alongside an adult processing a new terminal diagnosis. I’ve co-written songs about how bad hospital food is (apparently the pizza is particularly egregious), taught patients with movement disorders to play an instrument, and collaborated with speech therapists to improve speech volume and clarity through singing experiences. I’ve celebrated birthdays and discharge dates, mourned setbacks and losses, and used music to hold space for patients through their highest highs and their lowest lows. I’ve even been invited into the most sacred of spaces—to play a dying patient’s favorite song while they make their transition from this world to the next.
Music therapy gives opportunities to patients to be collaborators in their care in ways that invite them to reconnect with their autonomy, gain new insight, and process their lived experiences using music as a therapeutic medium. While it’s often hard to find the right words to articulate the complexities of living through hospitalization, trauma, and illness, music moves beyond words, into sounds, textures, feelings, stories, memories—all without saying a thing.
Here are a few ideas for how to integrate music into patient care, or your own self-care:
1. Consider the auditory environment and how it might be impacting a patient’s wellbeing.
Can some monitors be silenced or turned down? Can a patient select their own music to listen to during uncomfortable experiences?
2. Explore how you and your patients might use music as a source of support before and after surgeries, during long hospital stays, and after discharge.
Can a patient create and share a playlist with you ahead of a scheduled procedure? Can you take a moment and pause for the length of just one short song, taking that time to focus on your breath or body before or after a challenging patient encounter?
3. Silence can as powerful as sound.
Can you guide patients through music selection process, acknowledging that a song played during a painful procedure might now have a distressing memory attached to it? Can you create different playlists with different intentions for yourself—a “feel your feelings” playlist might, for example, create space to cry, while an energizing playlist might boost your dopamine on your commute.
4. Connect with a music therapist for more tailored music-based supports or to consult about specific patient or provider needs.
At Johns Hopkins, you can reach out to The Center for Music and Medicine to connect with our team of music therapists.
This piece expresses the views solely of the author. It does not necessarily represent the views of any organization, including Johns Hopkins Medicine.