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.