Y. Mark Hong, MD

Music to your Health

By markhongmd on August 11, 2014

Music and your Soul

It's everywhere.  Teenagers with Beats headphones on the subway.  Michael Phelps rocking it before swimming to gold.  Playing in the operating room near you during surgery.  When we turn on the radio or iTunes, we seldom think about the impact music has on our health.  Yet just like our health, we know we cannot live without music.  What are the ways in which music harmonizes with our bodies, our minds and indeed our souls?

Musical Therapy

Music has deeply restorative characteristics.  We know this instinctively when we get into an elevator and gentle music calms us just a bit from the horn honking and city noise we just survived.  Imagine if heavy metal were playing in the elevator?  You might just go crazy and punch every button for every floor.  We also know music affects our moods powerfully.  There's a reason Hollywood spends big bucks for scores to set the mood of a movie.  Think, John Williams's Theme to Jaws, with the shark fin racing towards an unsuspecting swimmer.  Or how about Jerry Maguire driving on an open Texas road after signing "Cushman".  Flipping through radio stations, trying to groove to an oldie ballad, then slow rhythmic country, until chancing on Tom Petty's "Free Falling" which he belts at the top of his lungs.  Talk about capturing a feeling.

Here are 5 ways music is magic for our health.

  1. Reduce stress -  In fact, music can not only help you relax but also induce a meditative-like state.   Imagine yourself in a medieval sanctuary listening to Gregorian chants.  The melodic rise and fall creates a rhythm that you eventually sync to, lowering blood pressure and clearing your mind.  Try it sometime.
  2. Improve physical performance -  We know that listening to music while you run can help you run farther and faster than without music.  Nowadays you can find apps dedicated to matching your cadence and heart rate to maximize your workouts.  
  3. Improve mental performance - There's some evidence that listening to music while performing cognitive tasks (like puzzles) can improve your performance.  Surgeons routinely have music turned on in the operating room.  Of course, this may be a double-edged sword as the wrong music at the wrong time can worsen your performance.  Just as any surgeon.  The moment things start going south in the operating room, what's the first thing he or she asks for?  "Turn the music off!"
  4. Improve sleep - Trouble falling asleep?  Before popping Ambien (which has a host of other problems including sleepwalking which aren't too safe), consider listening to classical music.  It has been shown to help people with insomnia.
  5. Lose weight - Music has complex effects on our appetite and the rate at which we eat.  Soft music and lower lighting led to an 18% decrease in calories consumed in one study, possibly because people ate more slowly.  The restaurant industry already knows that calm colors such as blue and grey tend to suppress your appetite, while warmer colors like red and yellow stimulate your appetite...and their revenue.  Think, McDonald's..."I'm Lovin' It" indeed!  Music can work in the same way.  Interestingly, one study showed diners rated food the tastiest when listening to Jazz, while diners scored the lowest ratings (eating the same food) while listening to Hip Hop.  Now you know what to have on the playlist on your next date night.  

Medicine and Music

The ancient Greek God of medicine, Asclepius, was renowned as a skilled surgeon who also used music to ease pain and suffering.  Musical notes have long intertwined Asclepius's staff and the history of music in medicine is long and vast.  Herman Boerhaave, a world renowned Dutch physician who coined "Boerhaave's syndrome", was a strong patron of music and the arts.  Fritz Kreisler, a violin prodigy and one of my childhood heroes, trained as a medical doctor after giving up a promising career as a violinist.  Kreisler eventually gave up medicine to pursue his true passion and went on to become one of the most celebrated violinists of the 20th century.  Alexander Borodin was a Romantic Russian composer who also happened to be a surgeon and chemistry professor, co-discovering the Aldol reaction.  The list of distinguished physicians who happen to be accomplished musicians, and vice versa, is long.

So why do physicians gravitate towards music?  There are many possible reasons.  One is that mastering both medicine and music take years of practice, mental discipline and physical skill and dexterity.  In fact, the training process to become a physician or surgeon is similar in many ways to the musical training process.  You need a firm foundation of knowledge, medical or musical theory, which requires studying to some degree.  If there's one thing doctors are really skilled at, it's studying.  Then there's the apprenticeship.  At the heart of all residency training programs is mentorship and apprenticeship.  Much like the relationship a musical student builds with his or her teacher, through years of instruction, feedback and development.  Then, there's the communicative aspect.  The art of medicine involves a subtle blend of medical knowledge, technical skill and emotional awareness to translate not just "bedside manner" but real comfort and healing to patients.  The heart of this art is communication.  What more evocative medium has existed in history to communicate than music?  To be able to express yourself through music is close to divine, much as the power to heal a celestial gift.  Finally, it's stress relief.  Physicians and other healthcare workers constantly operate under stressful environments, working with complex patients and technology, all the while thinking in the back of their minds, "Don't screw up."  As dozens of physician-musician orchestras around the country can attest, there is power in sharing this burden, there is power in expressing the emotions of practicing medicine through music, and there is relief in letting go of that stress through music.

Doctors in Recital

Small wonder, then, that here in Phoenix, a small group of physicians have banded together to perform in what has become known as, Doctors in Recital.  With the first recital three years ago, the annual Doctors in Recital event has grown to include musician physicians of all ages, specialities and instruments but unified by a love for music.  Sponsored by the Physicians for the Phoenix Symphony, a group of physicians dedicated to supporting the Phoenix Symphony since 1986, the recital is a benefit for the Phoenix Symphony and has been blessed with over-capacity crowds and enthusiastic support.  Musical acts have included powerful renditions of piano and violin concertos, a physician-led rock band and physicians singing Broadway tunes.  One particularly stunning performance was a Scottsdale neurologist who composed and performed his own piano piece.  At one point during the performance, as the doctor's right hand was plucking the strings inside the piano hood while the left hand crashed the piano keys, I glanced over the mesmerized crowd and thought to myself, "This is a world class concert...and they're just doctors!"  Year after year, Doctors in Recital has been an outstanding success not just for fundraising efforts but to bring together the musically-minded medical community in Arizona.  As a past piano and violin performer in the Recital myself, I am proud to be associated with this effort, and I hope that we continue to encourage this type of art and expression here in the Valley.  Dozens of my patients have promised me to attend next year, which is tentatively scheduled for March 2015.  I will keep you updated!

About Dr. Hong

Dr. Y. Mark Hong is a classically trained violinist and pianist who also sings, plays guitar, and has starred in community musical productions.  Dr. Hong strongly supports the Phoenix Symphony in its inaugural season with new music director, Tito Munoz.  ("It's Tito Time!")  Dr. Hong also happens to be a practicing urologist and Clinical Assistant Professor at Creighton University in Phoenix.  Please contact us to learn more or to schedule an appointment with Dr. Hong.  To learn more about the Physicians for the Phoenix Symphony, please contact Karen Thorn at kthorn@phoenixsymphony.org.


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