Music Makes the World Go ‘Round

by Victoria Porter

Published 6/28/02; © Medscape 2002

The idea of music as a healing force is not new. Ancient Greeks worshipped Apollo as the god of both music and medicine, and in the Egyptian and Greek education systems, healing and sound were considered a highly developed sacred science.[1]

Today, the medical profession recognizes the value of art — music, drawing, sculpting, and writing — in the healing or palliative care of a wide variety of patients: the chronically or terminally ill, the disabled, the neurologically impaired, and the mentally challenged. Physicians and other healthcare workers, psychologists, behavioral therapists — and, of course, musicians — are among the believers. Some believe in it so devoutly that they are willing to donate their time to the cause without financial gain. Read on to see some examples of such individuals, and the charitable organizations they have formed.

Songs of Love: The Medicine of Music

A few years ago, John Beltzer, a successful New York-based musician/songwriter, had the idea that he would integrate his love for music with his love for children — more specifically, his compassion for terminally ill children. Wouldn’t it be nice, he thought, if songs could be written and performed for sick children to make their illness more bearable? Or even to contribute to their healing? He discussed the concept with other singers and songwriters and, before long, he had put together a team of talented people who were writing personalized songs and performing them at children’s hospital wards and private healthcare institutions — and sometimes even making house calls.

Beltzer founded the Songs of Love Foundation, and, along with other volunteers, currently collaborates with about 350 musical artists to give “encouragement and love to those who need it most through the medicine of music.” Since its inception, this nonprofit organization has visited thousands of children in more than 150 hospitals and other healthcare institutions in the United States, and has worked with families to bring the joy and inspiration of music to children’s hearts.

Many schools have gotten involved with the Songs of Love program. Beltzer brings the sheet music for a personalized song, along with a profile and photo of the child for whom the song was written, to the participating school, and the students learn how to sing and record the song on site using equipment provided by the Foundation. A few days later, the students and their selected child will receive the recorded Song of Love.

Starlight Children’s Foundation

Since 1983, this international nonprofit organization has brought a variety of entertainment to more than 850 hospitals worldwide, giving a much-needed boost to over 85,000 sick children each month. Starlight offers 6 core programs, on both an inpatient and outpatient basis, that provide the medicine of laughter.

“Hospital Happenings” brings cheer to the pediatric ward through holiday parties and visits from clowns, musicians, and other entertainers. Parents and medical staff members are also invited to these gatherings. Recent happenings have included a “Kermit the Frog” show, hoedowns, sock hops, and Hawaiian luaus.

Under “The Kids Activity Network,” Starlight provides families of pediatric patients with an opportunity to reconnect and meet up with other families going through similar situations at a variety of events and outings. These events are organized for the families of children who have noncommunicable illnesses and vary widely by location; they include theme park visits, plays, movies, and parties.

“Starlight Fun Centers” are mobile entertainment units containing a television monitor, videocassette recorder, and Nintendo game system. What child wouldn’t feel less depressed and less isolated after playing a game of Nintendo? Caregivers have reported reduced need for medication and decreased levels of stress among their pediatric patients who are offered this diversion. Similar in concept, “PC Pal” affords hospitalized children the opportunity for interaction, entertainment, and education through the use of mobile personal computers with custom-designed software (Figure) and Internet access.

“Starlight Sites” transform ordinary hospital spaces into cozy recreational environments that provide kids with a safe and comfortable respite from the otherwise institutional decor. These modules are equipped with games, toys, books, and multimedia equipment and contain warm and appealing furnishings and decorations.

Through its “Wishes” program, Starlight has granted more than 21,000 wishes since the organization’s inception. Granting a wish to a sick child can mean anything from awarding a trip to Disney World to arranging a meeting with a celebrity. Some children’s wishes are more material, such as bicycles, computers, or toys.

Corporate sponsorship has gone a long way toward enabling The Starlight Children’s Foundation to improve thousands of children’s lives. Among the foundation’s numerous corporate sponsors are Colgate-Palmolive, Nintendo of America, Toys R Us, and American Airlines. The organization also depends on individual donations, and purchases can be made through The Starlight Store (sale proceeds benefit the foundation).

North Yorkshire Music Therapy Centre

Based in Malton, the British Isles, the North Yorkshire Music Therapy Center, a registered charity employs 4 trained music therapists who travel to rural community hospitals, special schools, day care centers, and individual homes. Using a variety of acoustic and electronic instruments, the therapists help patients of all ages to express themselves and communicate through the power of music. Concentration and memory can be improved by music therapy, the therapists say, as can movement, strength, and coordination. This form of therapy can also benefit those with terminal illnesses, mental health and emotional problems, speech or language impairment, a history of alcohol or drug abuse, dementia, eating disorders, stress, and autism.

Usually, it is a general practitioner, psychologist, teacher, or caregiver who refers an individual for music therapy. One of the therapists then pays several visits to the referred individual and performs an assessment of his or her needs.

Individual music therapy sessions are usually 30 minutes long, and group sessions can be as long as 1 hour. They are held at weekly intervals, and the music therapists provide written reports at regular intervals to chart progress in meeting the goals that were set during the assessment period.


Music therapy is a burgeoning profession. It is being offered in traditional clinical settings where individuals with emotional, developmental, or physical disabilities are cared for, as well as in other areas of healthcare delivery (eg, hospice care, substance abuse programs, oncology treatment centers, pain/stress management clinics, special education programs, correctional settings, early intervention centers, preschools, day care settings, home-based programs, and residential treatment centers). Music is frequently used in these settings to combat depression, alleviate pain, relax or sedate the patient, and brighten the patient’s perspective on life. A qualified music therapist creates a structured and positive environment in which the elements of music are used to enhance an individual’s self-awareness and spiritual growth, thereby increasing his or her quality of life.

The healing power of music cannot be overestimated. Some inspiring quotations that reinforce this notion are cited in Table 1 . Medical care alone can keep a sick child alive, but it is the child’s emotional state and quality of life that often determine how well he or she responds to that care.


“You, the listener, determine the final impact: You are an active conductor and participant in the process of orchestrating health.” — Don Campbell (author)

“Where is music? You can find it at many levels in the vibrating strings, the trip of the hammers, the fingers striking the keys, the black marks on the paper, or the nerve impulses produced in the player brain. But all of these are just codes; the reality of music is the shimmering, beautiful, invisible form that haunts our memories without ever being present in the physical world.” — Deepak Chopra (author; lecturer; CEO and founder of The Chopra Center for Well Being in La Jolla, California)

“(Music therapy) can make the difference between withdrawal and awareness, between isolation and interaction, between chronic pain and comfort — between demoralization and dignity.” — Barbara Crowe (past president of the National Association for Music Therapy)

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety and life to everything.” — Plato

“Simply put, music can heal people.” — Senator Harry Reid (Democrat-Nevada)

“Almost all children respond to music. Music is an open-sesame, and if you can use it carefully and appropriately, you can reach into that child’s potential for development.” — Dr. Clive Robbins (Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Clinic)

“I regard music therapy as a tool of great power in many neurological disorders — Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s — because of its unique capacity to organize or reorganize cerebral function when it has been damaged.” — Dr. Oliver Sacks (neurologist and author of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat)

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