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Music — the soul food of life

Rember the first time you went to a show and saw your favourite band. You wore their shirt, and sang every word. You didn’t know anything about scene politics, haircuts, or what was cool. All you knew was that this music made you feel different from anyone you shared a locker with. Someone finally understood you. This is what music is about.” — Gerard Way.

 

“I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” — Billy Joel. 

 

“If music be the food of love, play on.” — William Shakespeare.

 

Recently, I came across an article about the 2017 DotMD conference. For anyone unfamiliar with DotMD, it is “a one-day meeting for doctors and healthcare professionals which exposes them to ideas occurring at the interfaces of medicine, the humanities and emerging technologies in healthcare.” DotMD is also quite simply one of the most unique and innovative medical conferences to be found anywhere, and being an adopted Galwegian it is wonderful that the organisers are three of my colleagues in the ‘whesht’! 

What caught my attention most of all was one of the speakers for the 2017 meeting. Prof Richard Kogan is, in addition to being a Professor of Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College, US, also a concert pianist, a very good one at that, and also Artistic Director of the Weill Cornell Music and Medicine Programme. This got me thinking about music in my life, both as a pianist and as a doctor.

Music is of course one of life’s wonders. In my view, it provides rich food for the soul. To illustrate my point, I hope the reader will afford me a little latitude of digression. And so to digress, in addition to loving music, I also love the irony of life. It just comes along sometimes and gives us a good smack in the face. Like during a recent conversation about baby names. 

A few weeks ago, while driving up the M6 motorway from Galway to Dublin, I was having a rather heated discussion with my wife about names for a baby boy. The radio was playing in the background. At the very moment that I was heavily losing the argument for Elvis being a suitable name, and failing miserably to convince her that anyone except the ‘The King’ was called Elvis, what happens? Out from the radio came my smugly argument-saving song, the 1989 hit single Veronica by none other than the honorary Irish pop icon Elvis Costello! Peter one, wife nil. The song Veronica will now forever remind me of what a deserved slap to the left-hand-side of my head feels like.

This moment illustrates how for many people, music provides a permeating undercurrent to life, a thread of musical memories and associations of some of our most significant (and sometimes humiliating) life events. Pretty much everyone will have experienced music at a wedding, be it as part of a marriage ceremony, or more likely at a reception. Brides and grooms can spend hours selecting that special ‘first dance’ piece of music, and it is something that most of us will never forget. Many of us aged 40 and over will recall buying our first ‘single’, that 7” piece of vinyl that we played at 45rpm. Of course CDs eventually more-or-less replaced vinyl, but even these are nowadays almost obsolete. 

While vinyl records are making something of a comeback, with the advent over the last few years of online music streaming services such as Spotify I often wonder if the experience of putting on an album and playing it from start to finish is now a thing of the past. Classic albums such as the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, the Beatles’ Revolver, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Rubber Soul, or Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon were designed to be played without interruption, lying back with eyes closed, allowing the music to envelop your soul. 

Enjoyed alone or in company, they provided for hours of deeply meaningful pleasure and discussion as to whether when played backwards there really was satanic meaning to be found. Many readers may also recall the experience of trying to make personalised taped cassettes from the radio, anticipating the moments at which to press ‘record’ and ‘stop’, hoping the DJ wouldn’t talk over the start of the song, carefully crafting a personal selection of love songs designed to impress and woo that ‘special one’.

‘While I was aware that music therapy is used extensively in healthcare, for example with dementia, oncology and palliative care patients, to help children with complex special needs and in residential care settings, what I hadn’t realised is that music therapy is also used in many other conditions including neurological, cardiac and psychiatric disorders’

Live music almost always brings treasured memories. I will never forget my first arena concert in the King’s Hall just outside Belfast in 1987, when I was taken to see Elton John. Or when in 1993, during my first week in Galway, I found myself purely by chance at an impromptu Saw Doctors rehearsal gig in the Róisín Dubh. Dedicated fans of renowned live performance musicians such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen or U2 will insist that their concerts must be experienced to have considered oneself as having lived.

Of course, it’s not just pop and rock music that has the ability to feed the soul. There are more styles of music than can be imagined that provide for the tastes and likes of all humanity. If you’ve never experienced it, the sheer power of a symphony orchestra will simply blow you away. The skill and magnificent splendour of acapella singing will amaze, as will the exquisite sound of any sort of choir. Some of you may be familiar with the British choirmaster Garth Malone and his endeavours of bringing disparate groups of people together to sing. The results are quite astounding and have been shown extensively on television. We of course have the High Hopes choir here in Ireland. Under the direction of music producer David Hennessy, this group of homeless signers have performed in Áras an Uachtaráin for President Michael D Higgins, as well as being on stage at Electric Picnic earlier this year. 

Bluegrass, jazz, country, blues, house, funk, dance, trance and opera… the list goes on. Believe it or not, there are many fans who become smitten after their first opera, and if you’ve not yet been to a decent trad session or fleadh cheoil, maybe you haven’t yet lived! For those interested, the 2017 Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann will take place in Ennis next August. 

For others, like myself, it’s not just listening to music or the associations of particular songs that bring joy. It is also playing and creating music. As an amateur composer and pianist for over 35 years, playing and writing continues to bring me immense joy, solace, comfort and diversion. It is not an understatement to say that playing music is something I would despair to be without. I’ve also tried my hand pretty miserably at singing, playing violin, harmonica, church organ, and most recently ukulele, and would encourage everyone to give an instrument a go. Any instrument. And not to worry about what anyone else thinks. 

To this end, a few weeks ago I met a man who I once helped resuscitate after being pulled drowning from a swimming pool. He had seized in the pool as a consequence of having a brain tumour. Now fully recovered, I recently met him in the Town Hall Theatre in Galway at a concert of the Ukelele Orchestra of Great Britain, a most fantastic group if you ever have the chance to see them. He told me that even after multiple brain surgeries and being in his late 50s, he had in the recent past taken up learning the piano. How can anyone say ‘it’s too late’ or ‘I’m too old’ in the face of that story?

Despite my personal musical journey, the article on the DotMD conference served to make me realise that as a doctor, I should have better awareness and knowledge of the role of music in healing and therapy. Many readers may not be aware that Apollo was the ancient Greek god of both music and medicine, and Hippocrates, the father of our profession, played music for mental health patients as far back as 400BC. After both the first and second World Wars, live music was used in hospitals as part of the treatment programme for recovering soldiers, and clinical music therapy in Britain as it is understood today was pioneered as far back as the 1960s and 1970s by the French cellist Juliette Alvin. 

While I was aware that music therapy is used extensively in healthcare, for example with dementia, oncology and palliative care patients, to help children with complex special needs and in residential care settings, what I hadn’t realised is that music therapy is also used in many other conditions including neurological, cardiac and psychiatric disorders. 

I was also previously unaware that music therapy is used in the National Rehabilitation Hospital in Dún Laoghaire, and was interested to learn that the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick has on its curriculum a postgraduate Master’s Degree in Music Therapy. It also got me thinking that in an ideal health service, I might have access to a music therapy service, which I am sure many of my patients could benefit from. Unfortunately, in the current state of our public finances and HSE, I don’t see this happening any time soon.

What I do know is that music has provided food for my soul for over 40 years, and as a GP, every time I visit my local nursing home I see the smiles on the faces of the residents when JP is in playing guitar and signing a few tunes. As Billy Joel said, “I think music in itself is healing”. Perhaps next time I’m in and I see JP with his guitar, I’ll offer him Shakespeare’s advice, to “play on”.

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