Research Communications

Tuneful Treatment 

Students use music to soothe hospital patients and visitors

Sept. 29, 2009

Music therapy, which began as a field of study more than 60 years ago, is finding a niche in hospital settings in Ohio and across the nation, in areas ranging from burn centers, oncology, cardiac care, palliative care, children’s care, and hospice.

 “It’s a hot item, combining arts and health care,” says Louise Steele, associate professor and director of the music therapy department at Ohio University. She notes that many music therapy professionals in Ohio hospitals are Ohio University alumni.


Illustration: Christina Ullman, Ullman Design

Professionals in the field can point to ongoing studies—including at Ohio University—that confirm the effectiveness of music therapy on patients.

In 2004, undergraduate and master’s degree students in music therapy began conducting sessions at O’Bleness Memorial Hospital in Athens. The sessions are supervised by board-certified music therapists who are also professors and graduate assistants, Steele says. Several clinical studies have grown from this service to the hospital, with increasing numbers of participants in the past five years.

In summer 2007, students examined the effects of live music performance and participation on visitor satisfaction in hospital waiting areas. The students engaged visitors to the outpatient surgery and emergency departments in singing and playing instruments, with occasional guitars lessons for willing teen visitors. Study findings showed that music therapy can act as an inexpensive way to decrease boredom, increase the comfort of hospital visitors, and contribute to an overall positive experience.

Students now participate in studies at O’Bleness on a weekly basis, Steele says.  “We’ve expanded, as O’Bleness asked us to consider placing students in the birthing center to work with mothers pre- and post-delivery,” she says.  Graduate student Mayumi Kobayashi is studying the most effective way to engage new mothers in music therapy.  She teaches the mothers music-assisted relaxation techniques to reduce high blood pressure levels or to reduce anxiety, as well as songs that will help calm their newborns.

In the oncology department, graduate student Caitlin Nicholas was invited to work with groups of patients receiving chemo therapy, as well as their families.
“She is conducting a small study to gauge whether or not more passive interactive music techniques elicit a higher response from patients as compared to more active music interventions, such as playing instruments,” Steele says.

The Ohio Chapter of the American Music Therapy Association of Students intermittently visits O’Bleness to provide entertainment in waiting areas, Steele says, which is a direct result of the 2007 summer project.

By Samantha Kinhan

This article will appear in the Autumn/Winter 2009 issue of Perspectives magazine. 

For more information about the music therapy program at Ohio University, visit: