The Effect of Music and Serendipity

November 9, 2017

Music is for the NICU and Beyond

We never know when something random will become something important to know. This is my favorite example. When I was in eighth grade in 1988, I had to compete in Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science (PJAS). I struggled to weave something I cared about into a science project. I was going to be a helper, an artist and musician. When would I ever need science? My science teacher, Mrs. Libauch, was determined to prove that science is important to everyone. She helped me brainstorm something of interest that I could test: music and writing. She accepted my proposal: The Effect of Music on Heart Rate and Academic Performance. Back then, pre-Internet, it was not common knowledge that beats per minute had any relationship to heart rate. There was little research to pull from. Despite many flaws, my study showed a correlation between fast tempo, increased heart rate, and better academic performance on math exams. After my study was complete, I gave it little thought. In college, it served as a foundation for conducting research and using the scientific method for art and music therapy. The PJAS study was my very small, drop-in-the-bucket scientific contribution.

Fast-forward 19 years later. I was in the NICU with a fragile 24 week micro-preemie daughter, trying to convince neonatologists that music may help her heart rate, breath rate, and mechanical ventilator sync up. They’d labeled her as “failure to thrive” and said she was fighting the vent to the point of worsening Intraventricular Hemorrhages (IVH) bleeds in her brain (a common problem for preemies).

I pointed out that they have a hospital music therapist. Nobody laid claim to knowing about this, but said I was welcome to try anything I wanted. I tried reiki. I had people praying. I read and talked to her about the world outside of the NICU. The doctors did not think she was going to survive much longer. They recommended that I sign Do Not Resuscitate papers after her second flatline. Her dad ripped up the papers, threw them away, and we pressed on.

Leaving the NICU that day, I felt dejected. I walked slowly, with my head down. I saw a woman’s interesting shoes at the elevator, and a guitar on her back. I exclaimed, “Are you a music therapist?!” She looked at me funny and said, “Yes, how did you know?” I gushed, “Well, you’re walking around a hospital wearing a guitar. I’m an art therapist, so I can spot my kind.”

She walked back into the NICU with me, played her guitar and sang for my daughter. I don’t know if it was the science of it all that made the brain bleeds stop, or the music. But that music therapist restored my hope. I felt that I was on the right track.

In between NICU visits, I carefully selected music with various beats per minute. At the NICU, her dad and I played disc jockey: soulful jazz and upbeat Classical arias to play when they wanted her awake & alert. Soothing, slow lullabies from around the world or Rockabye Baby for rest. I hoped music would reach the deepest parts of healing, at the soul and cellular level. My daughter’s brain bleeds resolved, and she began to show improvement. She came home with a tracheostomy, ventilator, and oxygen.

Over the course of 4 years of home nursing, we continued to test this theory I had long ago, that music effects heart rate and cognitive performance. What I found is that it also effects respiratory rate. We had a pulseox machine to read heart rate, oxygen saturation and a vent that measured respiratory rates. I had very scientific-minded people in our home, who would not simply trust my intuition. I had an ex-army nurse who believed me and introduced opera music. We found pieces of music most effective in bringing my daughter out of respiratory distress, music that helped with transitions, and sleep.

During hospital stays, my daughter needed less pain and sedative medications when familiar music was playing. Some nurses claimed that she would not be able to hear in a medically induced coma, yet they noticed her sats changed when the music stopped or started again. Her expression changed from calm to furrowed brow when she didn’t like something. They were fascinated.

Musicians and filmmakers understand how powerful sound and vibration is, and how it touches the emotions. The entertainment industry gets it. With the exception of music therapists, what we under-value in society is music and art’s place in medicine.

Over the years, my daughter weaned off of oxygen, the ventilator, and survived a difficult airway reconstruction that allowed her freedom from the tubes and machines. Yet her vocal chords were still paralyzed. ENT specialists stated that she may never speak, and if she did, her voice would be a raspy whisper. I put research and music to the test to seek innovative treatment. She began to talk and hear after Auditory Integration Therapy, a music listening therapy created by an audiologist in an effort to help his mom, an opera singer. They found that the system was successful for a wide range of hearing and speech issues.

After all of these years, I finally see that I did need both art and science in my life. I just didn’t know this at the time I was learning it. I’d like to congratulate Mrs. Libauch for being right and thank her for teaching me the scientific process, because it’s something that has been relevant in my life. It is something that I will teach my child, who is now 9 years old and thriving past all medical expectations. I urge every NICU parent to make connections with past learning. You learned it for a reason, and one day that knowledge will help you solve problems. Solutions often come from desperate problem-solving. Solutions come from trial and error, creative thinking, and applying what we know and love. Science and serendipity taught me that.