Music of the wards

I was listening to a fascinating account on the radio about the introduction of background music to a large Danish hospital. The specialist/consultant/senior medical doctor described how music was being used in the post-operative recovery rooms. It had been discovered that patients responded well to low level (45dB) music without any obvious rhythms or any strident or dynamic qualities. The music sounded like the sort of thing stressed people would use to help them relax. Soft, meandering electronic sounds allowed the patient to build an oasis of calm in a sea of pain and confusion as they woke from surgery.

Headphones were too irritating and difficult to use in bed so ceiling speakers and pillows with hidden speakers were provided. The patient was offered a choice of music to match their own tastes. Though it was quickly found that most patients would refuse music if it was offered as an open option to having none at all. The were too many unknowns involved for them to make a choice. So the music was left running constantly and always gently and was appreciated by most patients.

Staff were also being trained to consider the patient by reducing noise levels. Nurses were played recordings of normal nursing activities which often involved loud discussions and clashes of noisy objects together! Or trolleys banging carelessly into swing doors. Such noises tended to escalate conversation levels just to be heard clearly above the background racket they themselves were making.

The machines, which are now an essential part of modern medicine, are built to low noise standards. But quickly accumulate to produce a cacophony when multiples of machines were brought together. As in intensive care. Gentle background music helped to mask the often-alien noises of all these machines. The doctor suggested that the difference of providing music could probably be measured in the reduction in the number of pain killers administered.

He suggested that one day an in-ear sound reproduction devices would become the norm. I imagine it would be even more useful than speakers since the devices would damp ambient noise rather like industrial ear plugs. Setting volume levels might be a problem unless these devices had automatic volume controls relying on feedback from the patient's own ears. The patient might often be quite unable to adjust volume levels themselves. Further adding to the torture of recovery from major surgery.

Hospital rooms are themselves often hard-surfaced and highly reflective. With very little natural sound damping. This tended to emphasise impacts and other irritating high frequency noises. Making it hard for patients to relax in such a tiring environment. While hygiene levels had to be maintained some extra sound damping is very desirable. Hard soled footwear is obviously very undesirable in these acoustically undamped environments. All medical staff wear soft, moulded rubber sandals. I know from my own limited experience that it is very difficult to hear the staff moving around normally in Danish hospitals.

Heart patients often have racing pulses and it was found that playing strongly rhythmic music helped to lower pulse rates. Presumably the patient locked onto the slower beat with beneficial results. I presume Metallica is not an option on the hospital sound system!

No doubt the use of music, as yet another tool in the armoury of the medical profession, is still in its infancy. The cost of the equipment to replay gentle soothing sounds at low levels is but a tiny fraction of the medical budget of any hospital. Its benefits are yet to be fully understood nor yet administered in the most efficacious ways to match the needs of all patients. No doubt progress will be made in this field of audio and medicine as in any other.

I rather liked the contrast with our own excitement seeking activities in HT and audio. Where maximum volume and extreme dynamics are the usual requirements. I wonder if there is room for selective infrasonics in medicinal music? Perhaps this is why I play organ music in the background while I'm scribbling online? I am building an oasis of calm on which to float my ideas about our very strange world. If nothing else, it helps to drown out the neighbour's clapped-out, motor-driven, garden machinery! My diagnosis suggests a massive dose of Jeff Beck's Guitar Workshop is indicated. Repeated as necessary! ;-)