Music therapy: singing as a medicine


Music is something which accompanies all of us through life: a way of expressing happiness, indispensable at times of sadness when words alone seem too feeble or simply too difficult to bear, for melancholic evenings at home so we are never alone or empty, a source of fun to be shared with friends, to mark all festive occasions.

Music can also accompany illness. I’ve always been vaguely aware of the existence of music therapy. But despite my interest in all things musical, it’s not something which I have encountered in my medical life so far, so that I conclude that it is far from a routine offer in conventional adult medical practice.

The weekly medical magazine in Germany – Deutsches Ärzteblatt – reports this week about the healing power of song. Studies have shown that singers in a choir not only feel better and more relaxed subjectively, but that they have a measurably increased production of the feel-good hormone oxytocin and of immunoglobulin A as well as a reduction in the level of the stress hormone cortisol.

The positive effect of a choir practice at the end of a long day at work is something I have never failed to feel.

But singing can be used to help the sick. It has been shown that the anxiousness, fear and pain in patients suffering from cancer can be reduced through singing.  In Germany, there is even an ‚Association of singing hospitals‘, where musical therapy specialists lead singing groups for patients and where research in the field takes place. Some 23 hospitals in Germany claim the title. That’s not very many, given the size of the country, and probably explains why I have never come across something like it in my everyday life. But something which appears to be growing.

The article reminded me of a member of my old choir who was diagnosed with a metastatic recurrence of her breast cancer many years after her initial therapy. On the week I telephoned to enquire how she was feeling before the results (waiting for results is often the worst time of all), which I knew from the scans looked bad, she told me above all about the choir practice she had attended and about the next choir project she was looking forward to. Perhaps she had her priorities right.

Living a life with an illness can be a difficult thing. But if music is indeed in some small way a healer, then let it play on.

A ragga remix of ‚Royals‘

The biggest problem with a pop song, is that if you listen to it too many times, you will inevitably reach a saturation point. In fact, a pop song has to be exceptionally good to stand up to the the test of radio overplay. Back in October, I mentioned a couple of tunes that I thought had a refreshing sound. One of them was ‚Royals‘ be Lorde. 6 months later, I flick away from the track when I hear the first beats of the intro.

That’s where good remixes and covers come in. Here’s a great tribute from the Jamaican dancehall reggae artist Busy Signal. Granted, I can’t really understand what he’s singing about, but I love his silky voice, the ragga makeover and the great rap in the middle of the track (at 1:25).

Why does nostalgia make us happy?

I’m currently reading a very interesting and enjoyable book by Daniel Rettig which explores this very question- ‚Die guten alten Zeiten: Warum Nostalgie uns glücklich macht‘ (The good old times: Why nostalgia makes us happy‘ – not yet available in English, but perhaps in the future). From Homer’s Odyssey, through to the curious experiments and case reports of doctors and psychologists over the centuries to our present day love of all things vintage – Rettig explains why nostalgia is so important to us.

Hearing this wonderfully original cover and remix of 2 early nineties pop hits* on the way home after a night shift this morning made me more than a little bit nostalgic. For a time of sleep-over parties with friends you thought you would have forever, putting together dance routines in the playground, making daisy-chains and playing rounders and line-tag on the school field. And guess what, these thoughts made me happy. I’m looking forward to finishing the book to find out why this is the case.

In the mean time, if you’re a nineties kid and would like some nostalgia of your own, listen to Bastille ‚Of the night‘. A hit in the charts in the UK for a few weeks already and surely on its way up in the German pop charts. Enjoy.

*Rhythm is a dancer(Snap, 1992) /Rhythm of the night (Corona, 1993)

European train journeys

IMAG0111The Europeans are known for their love of train travel. Complaining about the state of trains however is a pivotal part of that love. In a funny way, it brings people together: a beloved topic for small-talk, a recurrent status update on Facebook and Twitter, and a theme which often brings strangers into spontaneous conversation with thier fellow aggrieved passengers.

Studies have show that the more we earn, the happier we are – but only to an extent. There comes a point when earning more does not necessarily make us happier. A better train network seems to work in a similar way. Strictly speaking, the Germans have a better train network than the British (faster, more comfortable and generally more reliable), but are they more satisfied? No. The activity of complaining about the trains even has it’s own made-up word: „Bahn-bashing“. And with the reminder in the news today that the fares are about to be hiked up, there’s bound to be a fervent round of it.

In the last 2 weekends I have travelled 560km from Berlin and 600km to and from Munich on the train and marvelled at the ease and cosiness of it all; a comfortable seat to read my book, the knowledge that there is a carriage serving hot meals should I need it (the classic chilli con-carne is my tip), helpful passengers who helped with my heavy bag and no major delay, despite the first flakes of snow.

I’ve had my share of bad train journeys in Germany, but praise when praise is due. Despite the high kilometre count, I emerged from the end of the weekend with enough energy to go back to work on Monday morning feeling refreshed and thinking back wistfully upon my walk through the streets of Munich with magnificent buildings at every other corner, the scrumptious Schnitzel served up by the hearty barmaid at the Augustiner Brauhaus, the countless christmas markets and the stroll through the English gardens on a perfectly cold and sunny Sunday afternoon. It’s definitely a city I could imagine living in.


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King of the instruments

IMG_20131020_193838On a tip from an acquaintance, I ended up at one of the organ concerts taking place as part of the International Düsseldorf Organ Festival. Who would have known that Düsseldorf has almost 200 organs of concert standard? The festival programme (spanning over 5 weeks!) looks rich, varied and quirky with performances combining the organ with guitar, folk singing, drums and even the didgeridoo and spans from traditional church music to jazz and opera. Presumingly aiming to get more people interested in the instrument.

Although organs are invariably associated with the church, they are reported to have been built in the centuries before Christ, where initially water was used to pump air through the pipes. Known as the ‚king of instruments‘, it can can produce the lowest and highest notes of all instruments.

At the end of another glorious autumnal weekend, as the evening drew, there was something cosy  and fitting about sitting in the back row of a church, wrapped up in a shawl listening to works by Verdi and Wagner conveyed by the single and multiple, both soothing and terrifying, tones of the organ.



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On a cold, dark rainy Thursday evening this week, after a longish day at work, I drove up to the Philharmonie in Essen to listen to Verdi’s Requiem for the first time. Sitting in the midst of the silver-haired audience, I was relieved to nestle into my seat just in time. As the music began, I was surprised at how dramatic and theatrical the Requiem was – trumpet fanfares, whispered passages and a ferocious ‚Dies Irae‘ (which most people will recognise  when they hear it). In fact, it felt like pure Opera. No surprise to learn later then, that this was the only large-scale piece Verdi wrote which wasn’t an opera. And interestingly, that Verdi was a suspected agnostic. He even included female voices in his score and convinced the church and its archbishops to allow them to sing in the church, which at the time was not routine practice.

The Requiem is off course, the traditional Roman Catholic mass for the dead. Hundreds have been written since the middle ages by countless composers. A few are however particularly well known and often performed. In the last couple of years I have had the chance to perform the Brahms Requiem and the Requiem from Fauré with my choir.

Otherwise known as „A German Requiem“, Brahms Requiem is sung in German rather than Latin and said to be humanist and non-liturgical. Listening to its powerful text, intricate melodies both firm and gentle, could bring nothing other than comfort to the dying and those left behind.

If I had to choose a favourite, it would probably be the Requiem from Gabriel Fauré. It has a softness and sweetness which speaks peace. No wrath, no indignation, just beauty and peace.

All 3 Requiems were written in the late 19th century, all written as expected in commemoration and remembrance. Granted, penned by an Italian, a German and a Frenchman respectively, but still surprising in their completely differing interpretation and delivery.  All have a fitting place. It reminded me of the stages of grief as described by Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These emotions and attitudes are certainly to be found in all these pieces in varying degrees. In the words of Heinrich Heine: „Where words leave off, music begins.”



concert_programmeReading the programme from concerts is normally worth it. I like learning about the composer, the inspiration for the piece of music and what I am supposed to look out for in the various passages, as well as usually being a little bit curious about where the soloist comes from and how old they are.

Annoyingly, I seem to forget almost everything I have read. The ‘Quartet for the End of Time’ by Olivier Messiaen is however an exception to this, because the story behind it, as the title suggests, is simply exceptional. Messiaen was taken as a prisoner of war from France to Görlitz, Germany in 1940. A sympathetic camp guard gave him manuscript paper and means to write when he found out that he was a composer. Three other musicians were also in the camp, which is why Messiaen composed this piece of work for a rather unusual quartet of piano, clarinet, cello and violin. A fellow prisoner-of-war drew the program above for the concert which premiered in one of the prison barracks, with a reported audience of 4000 – prisoners and their camp officers alike.

Messiaen was deeply religious and the work is about the apocalypse – so the biblical end of time – and is composed in 8 movements. This summer, I heard a stunning performance of one of the movements written for cello and piano in the romanesque church at Neuss, which blew me away with its eery beauty and brought me to the verge of tears. The music is minimalist, ethereal and full of light. The complete opposite of how the circumstances must have been in the camp, with every prisoner there wondering whether they were nearing the end of their time in this world.

It worked out well for Messiaen, who was repatriated to France in the spring of 1941 and continued to compose until his death in 1992.

I’m still on the look out to hear the entire piece in concert somewhere. Until then, the message is to keep reading programmes. There are lots of interesting stories out there.

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