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Musical Intervention: From Calming Nerves to Weaning Patients Off Ventilators

Music can be a powerful tool. We use it to self-soothe, to brighten our walk to the store, to iron out frayed nerves, and to cut loose.

Because music can elicit a particular emotion at any given time, it can be an effective coping strategy. Music therapy can lead to stress reduction and ease depression symptoms. Our musical taste can even tell us more about ourselves and help us to work through emotions. But can music help us heal? The results of a new study suggest it can.

Patients weaning from prolonged use of a mechanical ventilator did better when listening to music than those who did not, according to a study from the University of Pittsburgh. Patients who chose to participate in a “musical intervention” were allowed to listen to the music of their choice every other day during their weaning period. On the days they listened to music, those patients showed a dramatic decrease in respiratory rate, impaired breathing and anxiety. Researchers believe a musical intervention could get patients breathing on their own faster.

What is it about music that makes it so therapeutic?

A cross-cultural study published earlier this year found that, while everyone varies in what music makes them feel good or feel bad, their subjective and physiological responses to how exciting or calming they found a piece of music appears to be universal.

“People have been trying to figure out for quite awhile whether the way that we react to music is based on the culture that we come from or on some universal features of the music itself,” said study author Stephen McAdams, from McGill’s Schulich School of Music. “Now we know that it is actually a bit of both.”

In this previous article author Malini Mohana explains how music transcends other sensory experience and taps into brain areas associated with motivation, reward and emotion. The “brain’s emotional, language and memory centers are connected during the processing of music,” she writes. In fact, “music can be so evocative and overwhelming that it can only be described as standing halfway between thought and phenomenon.”

Music might be one of the only things that soothes my anxiety about getting on an airplane. I hate all the physiological sensations that come from being suspended in mid-air. I practice breathing exercises, tensing and un-tensing muscles, and focusing on the rest of my day once I get where I’m going. But nothing works better during some mid-flight turbulence than a playlist — preferably songs with a nice bouncy beat that match the herky-jerky flight.

I remember reading a fearful flyers book in which the author suggest listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” when she hit turbulence. I thought it was a terrible idea, but it was helpful. (Additionally, “Roll With The Changes” by REO Speedwagon and “Tap Out” by The Strokes seem to do the trick in rough air.)

Changing my mood from sheer, unadulterated fear to something positive made me feel powerful. I was a little happy, a bit dancy, a tad nostalgic and somehow joyful. It was the first time I ever saw my flying fear as something I could control. My fear was emotion-based, not reality-based. It wasn’t set in stone. The music was a gift.

Music can speak to us in ways that nothing else can. It can open the door to new places in our minds and nourish us in a way that is nearly spiritual. How has music soothed or saved you?

Woman listening to music photo available from Shutterstock

Musical Intervention: From Calming Nerves to Weaning Patients Off Ventilators

Sarah Newman, MA, MFA

Sarah Newman is the managing editor and associate publisher of PsychCentral and the founding editor-in-chief of the Poydras Review.

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APA Reference
Newman, S. (2018). Musical Intervention: From Calming Nerves to Weaning Patients Off Ventilators. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 7 Jun 2015)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.