Doctor, doctor, give me the news … music can help chase away your blues.
And soothe the nerves of patients, sharpen the focus of surgeons and improve movement in the elderly or those suffering from neuromuscular disorders.
UNO researchers in several disciplines are exploring the connection between what we hear and how we heal.
That includes Mary Perkinson, an assistant professor of music at UNO and a concert violinist who has performed with the Omaha and Madison, Wis., symphonies and toured internationally with the Broadway musical The King and I. Perkinson developed the Sound Health program while a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The award-winning program has musicians from UW performing in public spaces at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Hospital.
“Patients said that it made them feel less anxious during their wait time to see the doctor,” Perkinson says.
She tells the story of one patient in her 60s who normally took anti-anxiety medication before visits to her ear, nose and throat doctor. The music had a dramatic effect on her stress levels.
“She told me she didn’t need to take it (the medication) because she felt so calm from the music.”
Perkinson initiated the program at UW in 2010 after visiting her father-in-law at the Cleveland Clinic as he awaited surgery. “I had not spent much time at hospitals, and it was very stressful,” she recalls.
Leaving the room to get something to eat, she heard the relaxing sounds of a harpist playing in the hospital’s atrium. An audience of doctors, hospital staff and patients, joined by family and friends, had gathered to listen. “I felt really inspired and moved by that experience, and I wanted to be on the giving end of something like that.”
Perkinson joined the UNO faculty in the fall of 2014 and started a similar project in Omaha this past spring — launching a pilot program at CHI Health Bergan Mercy Medical Center.
The result was four performances at the hospital — with presentations ranging from percussion and string ensembles to piano music — that involved 21 UNO students.
“The students were really excited about it,” Perkinson says. “It gives them a chance to perform in a welcoming environment and to contribute to the community.”
Katelyn Kukoly of Fremont, Neb., who is studying violin performance and music education at UNO, enjoyed the unique setting.
“It was cool being in a hospital, somewhere completely different,” Kukoly says. “Everyone seemed to really appreciate the music.”
Kukoly, who also plays violin in a local rock band, performed in the lobby of the hospital with two other UNO music students for about an hour. She played duets with a cellist, while the third student also played the violin.
The hospital’s staff was grateful to have the students perform.
“Sound Health’s mission to enrich the hospital environment for patients, community and staff through live music is a perfect complement to our hospital’s healing ministry,” says Cheryl Morehouse, volunteer and guest services manager and healing arts ministry coordinator at Bergan. “As a musician myself [flute and piano], I also understand the value of live performances being extended to participating students. It’s a win-win situation.”
Morehouse says feedback comments included “That just made my day!” and “Brightened my whole week!”
This fall, Perkinson plans to partner again with CHI Health Bergan Mercy Medical Center and add Children’s Hospital and Medical Center.
Every Step You Take, Every Move You Make
Don McLean dug those rhythm and blues in American Pie, but the Go-Go’s more accurately sum up UNO professor Nick Stergiou’s research on music’s influence on human gait with the group’s 1982 hit We Got the Beat.
Stergiou, director of the Biomechanics Research Building at UNO, has been studying the influence of auditory signals on human gait. This research holds potential for improving the gait of patients suffering from neuromuscular disorders and for older individuals who are experiencing deteriorating gait.
Stergiou and his team conducted trials in which subjects were fitted with headphones and listened to Beethoven’s Fur Elise while walking around an indoor track at UNO. The subjects wore an electronic device to measure their strides.
Researchers then manipulated the beat of the music — from random (white noise) to predictable (brown noise) to somewhere in between (pink noise).
What did they find?
“We believe that not all auditory signals are created equal,” Stergiou says. He references a theory of aesthetic value developed by the late American mathematician George David Birkhoff that basically states that a work of art is pleasing if it is neither too regular and predictable nor packs too many surprises.
The same is true for healthy human gait, Stergiou says.
“When you walk, every step that you make is not exactly the same as the previous one,” he says. “If every step that you take is extremely repetitious, that is not good for you. You are like a robot. On the other hand, if you walk all over the place, you’re kind of like a drunken sailor.”
The healthy human gait is somewhere in between — most like the pink noise. Stergiou’s hope is that his team could help individuals suffering from an irregular gait — perhaps due to Parkinson’s disease or a stroke — by having them walk to this pink noise that mimics healthy gait.
“We found that you are actually capable of following this (music pattern),” Stergiou says. “We found that elderly people with compromised gait who walk to music with a pink-noise beat exhibit gait that is similar to healthy people.”
The specific song or music genre doesn’t particularly matter — it’s the rhythm or the nonrandom, nonpredictable beat.
“It’s not Fur Elise, itself, it is the distance between the beats which is very important,” Stergiou says. “We believe if you train with this structure, in terms of the beats, that will eventually be good for you … and help you walk better in the future.”
Music — as UNO’s Perkinson notes — can help patients relax, but its effect doesn’t have to be limited to the waiting room. Music often blares in the operating room, too.
And it turns out that Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg might help surgeons best.
A study published in 2010 by UNO researchers found that music has a beneficial effect on surgical performance. The study tested medical students in performing two surgical tasks that required significant dexterity and coordination: suture tying and mesh alignment using the da Vinci robotic surgical system.
The students, who had limited experience with the system, performed the study with no music and while listening to songs representing four different genres — jazz, classical, hip-hop and Jamaican. The genres were selected based on interviews with surgeons on the music most commonly heard in operating rooms.
What did they find?
All participants performed the surgical tasks more efficiently and effectively while listening to music. And the most significant improvements came when they were listening to hip-hop and Jamaican music — music with high rhythmicity.
That didn’t come as much of a surprise to Stergiou.
“Again, we are talking about rhythmicity. That is important. The rhythm is very, very important. That could be a common denominator with the other study (on gait).”
The principal investigator for the study was Ka-Chun “Joseph” Siu, who then was a postdoctoral student working with Stergiou. He now is an assistant professor in physical therapy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
Kirk Hutton, a former two-time Academic All-American football player at UNO who now is an orthopaedic surgeon at OrthWest in Omaha, says he listens to music in the operating room.
“My ‘go to’ is country and then some old rock and pop stuff,” Hutton says. “I find that it helps me concentrate more. If a room gets too quiet, I feel like the tension goes up. With music in the background, I tend to be able to concentrate and focus a little more.”
Hutton, a 1984 UNO biology graduate, estimates that 90 percent of the surgeons at the orthopaedic hospital listen to some type of music. Hutton says he performs about 15 surgeries per week; he specializes in shoulder surgeries. Often he’ll consult with his OR team — which usually includes four other individuals — before selecting the music.
“The nurses have a list of what the doctors like to listen to,” he says. “Mine says country. But a lot of times, I’ll go around the room and ask the anesthesiologist or the nurses, ‘What do you want to listen to?’ So we kind of pass it around a little bit.
“But they all know if a case gets tough or technical, we’ll need to turn the radio back to country.”
For those in the waiting room, classical sounds are what soothe. For those struggling to walk, the Go-Go’s might help them go-go.
Sound choices for sound health.