Measuring the Impact of Music on Patients

Oct. 12, 2012

McLaughlin said Woods specialized in early childhood education and developed the ability to “zero in on a pitch that would cause a baby to stop crying and go into a state of peace,” she said. “I saw this happen time and time again.”

While she was pregnant, Woods taught her how to tune in to her unborn daughter. “I learned to hear that pitch and then sing that pitch to the baby from the time she was tiny. That’s where this little seed of creative research started.” 

Out of Harmony

“There is a tonal pitch to every human being,” she said. “I can feel the vibrations when the body is out of harmony and use the harp to create a sympathetic vibration that helps the part of the body that is in disharmony to relax,” she said. “It’s almost like a harp biofeedback I suppose.”

Several years ago she worked with a cancer patient who found that when McLaughlin played the harp to her, it eased the pain and helped her attain a state of relaxation and peace, which she believed contributed to her healing.

“The positive results of that work with her was one of the encouraging things for me to want to take the next step,” McLaughlin said.

McLaughlin completed her doctorate UA in 1980 and joined the UA School of Music faculty in the College of Fine Arts in 1982. Today this harp virtuoso is a Distinguished Professor. She’s also received the Five-Star Faculty Award. In addition to teaching, soloing around the world and performing with her acclaimed Harp Fusion ensemble, she began fine-tuning this intuitive skill that seemed to resonate with individuals. 

The Power of Harp Music

McLaughlin saw firsthand the power of harp music and the deep impact it had on people. Yet she wanted more than anecdotal evidence. After working for decades at a top research university, she knew wanted to do “appropriate scientific study.”

She contacted Dr. Ann Marie Chiasson, clinical assistant professor of medicine at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.  Ann Baldwin, UA Research Professor of Physiology and Psychology, joined the team.

Dr. Gulshan K. Sethi, medical director of the UA circulatory sciences program, helped facilitate access to the cardiac unit and patients willing to participate. The study was funded by an anonymous donor who had experienced the balancing effects of McLaughlin's harp music. 

10-Minute Concerts for Patients

McLaughlin played private 10-minute concerts for 50 patients in the post-operative cardiac care unit at UA Medical Center. Another 50 patients – the control group – spent 10 minutes quietly relaxing with no music. Baldwin monitored the patients’ blood pressure, heart rate variability, blood oxygen levels and respiration rate. She also tracked their self-reported pain levels.

“We wanted to see if any of these physiological parameters changed after the harp music that we did not see in the resting-only group. We also wanted to see if hearing the harp did reduce pain perception,” said Baldwin, a reiki master who has practiced reiki on people and animals for the past five years. Once the data is analyzed, the team plans to publish the results in a scientific journal.

A classical harp has tremendous tonal range and resonance. The vibrations are palpable. McLaughlin improvised what she played for each patient, adapting to any responses she observed. “When I see a patient change their breathing pattern, I change the way I’m playing,” she said.

More Music in Hospitals

Chiasson was an infectious disease epidemiologist and energy healer before she went to medical school, then completed a fellowship in integrative medicine at the UA. 

"It’s exciting that we’re doing this research. I’m eager to see what our data shows. We’re seeing an increase of music in hospitals,” she said, including one in Denver where harp music is played in the bone marrow transplant unit. “This is a movement in medicine starting to happen – but there’s not a lot of data” to substantiate the benefit.

If research supports her intuition – that the harp is an instrument to further healing – “then I can take that information and I can teach it,” McLaughlin said.

“The UA was a big part of my being inspired toward this work,” she said. “This research really started here with Dr. Woods.” The longtime music professor headed the School of Music for six years and was Dean of the College of Fine Arts for another six years.

“That’s why we’re all magnetized to the UA and institutions like it. These germs of a creative idea start and you don’t know where it’s going to go.” 

Learn more about the University of Arizona School of Music.

Learn more about the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine.