Live music in the hospital helps patients heal

Patients who’ve undergone surgery benefit from listening to live music, Hanneke van der Wal-Huisman has found. It calms down their nervous system. She will receive her PhD on Wednesday.

Van der Wal-Huisman was studying older patients who were recuperating from invasive surgery. One group received ‘regular’ care, while another group got something extra: live music, played by musicians and students from the Prince Claus Conservatory. 

Her research shows that the patients who were exposed to music were physically better off. They also expressed appreciation for the music during their healing process.

She proved the physiological effects of the music by analysing heart rate measurements. ‘It involves a genuinely physical response by the nervous system’, she says.


After surgery, your body is in stress mode, she explains. ‘That’s normal and perfectly fine.’ As a result, however, the two parts of your autonomic nervous system become imbalanced. While in stress mode, your body is actively healing. ‘It starts accelerating everything: that’s the sympathetic part of the nervous system.’ 

In older people, this stress mode sometimes persists for too long and the body has trouble getting back into its relaxed mode: the parasympathetic part of the nervous system. The live music appears to help activate this relaxed mode.

Social effects

She doesn’t know how it works exactly. It could be a direct effect of sound vibration, but the social effects of live music may also play a role. 

The live music added to the atmosphere on the hospital ward; the conversations between patients and between patients and nurses became more personal, more human, Van der Wal-Huisman says.  ‘Even then, music was the catalyst.’ 

Quite a remarkable choice, to research the effects of live music in patient care. Or was it? ‘Florence Nightingale, one of the founders of scientific nursing research, already mentioned it. It’s actually remarkable that music isn’t used more often.’

Nevertheless, she was positively surprised by the outcome. ‘How meaningful it was to the patients, the effect it had on the ward, that certainly surprised me.’

Bach and Coldplay

The musicians have a vast repertoire, ranging from Bach to Coldplay. How well people heal does not appear to be dependent on the genre: all types of music appear to help. What works for individuals depends on the patient and their situation. 

That’s why the interaction between musicians and patients is so important. And it involves more than just playing requests: the musicians can improvise on site, allowing them to respond to the patients’ reactions.

Van der Wal-Huisman thinks interventions with live music can also help patients in other hospital departments. She has started a new study on this. 



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