Students at Johnson State College are learning to use music as medicine for what the college says is the nation’s only bachelors’ degree in wellness. To bring a real-world perspective to the academic offerings, harpist Linda Schneck recently gave a musical lecture demonstration.
After students settled into their seats on a sunny, crisp afternoon, Schneck stood beside her harp in the middle of the classroom and explained her unusual line of work. She said she is not trying to cure serious illness, but she cited clinical studies showing that certain kinds of music—especially harp--can change the body’s response to pain and stress.
“The parasympathetic nervous system, which is the part of your nervous system that is trying to hold a calm balance, that relaxes,” she explained.
What Schneck plays on her harp differs depending on the patient’s diagnosis. She also changes her improvisation as she observes the patient’s response—for example, deeper breathing, or an altered heart rate—in response to the sound.
“So what happens if I play a note that is droning, so it just continues the same note, the same harmony to be played over and over?” she asked the class.
Then she played a soothing composition that shifted harmonies but kept a steady rhythmic tone beneath the melody.
That, she said, could improve a patient’s circulation, at least temporarily.
No one questioned her. In fact, junior Brandi Garcia said she’s seen it work, first-hand.
“I actually work at the hospital in St. Albans, at Northwestern Medical Center, and we have a harpist playing in our waiting room. And it’s really soothing for the patients who are going to get their mammograms, CATSCAN, MRI to have that experience of that soothing music. It helps them prepare for those tests that may not bring the best of news to them, but it just helps them relax for the moment,” Garcia said.
Research is starting to confirm that music can affect not just mood, but biochemistry. Many of those studies are conducted or sponsored by alternative medicine organizations. Harpist Schneck knows that it will take some time for skeptical doctors to “prescribe,” music, but she says it is becoming more popular, especially in hospice settings.
“There’s a difference between healing and curing, and so although we may not be curing disease, we may be helping,” she said, “in a non-pharmaceutical way.”