What was the main conclusion you drew during the course of your research?
“I conducted research on the effects of live and recorded music on pain and anxiety in children who were undergoing painful procedures in hospitals. The question as to whether music works requires a nuanced answer, but my general conclusion is that it has a positive effect.
“My study had four components: two literature reviews and two clinical trials. The former showed that live music therapy improves the sleep quality of premature babies. But there were major differences with regard to the type of music intervention, its duration and the amount of time the babies had been carried inside their mothers’ wombs. The second study showed that children who can listen to music following an operation experience significantly less anxiety and pain than children in control groups. Although I should point out that this was based on no more than three randomised and controlled trials.
“I conducted my clinical trial at a children’s hospital in Cape Town. My subjects were children with burns and children at the emergency room. No significant difference between the intervention group and the control group was demonstrated in children with burns. However, self-reported pain scales for children aged five or older did show a significant reduction in anxiety following live music therapy. Children who were able to listen to recorded music while undergoing a painful procedure at the emergency room experienced a significant reduction in pain.”
How did you cross paths with this subject?
“I studied Medical Anthropology in Amsterdam and have always been fascinated with integrative medicine, also known as non-pharmacological interventions, such as meditation, acupuncture and massage. I find it interesting that people use therapies that are not yet part of traditional health care. After getting my degree I worked in that field for three years. Among other places, I worked in America, where this type of treatment is part of the healthcare system, despite the fact that there is not much of an evidence base. Through a think tank dedicated to this subject I was asked to join the ‘Music as Medicine’ research group, and I was the first PhD student on the team to be awarded a doctorate.
“If you’d told me years ago that I’d spend three years conducting research on music therapy at a burns unit in Cape Town, I wouldn’t have believed you. Sometimes it’s a matter of saying ‘yes’ to something. Things may turn out differently from what you were expecting, and very interesting things may happen in your life.”
That sounds pretty full on, working with children at a burns unit.
“That was by far the hardest aspect of my doctoral research. While their wounds are being dressed, the children are in so much pain they will sometimes scream for twenty minutes on end. But on the other hand, it was interesting to see how resilient children are. Sometimes they would be lying in their beds crying with pain after receiving treatment, yet a music therapist would have them smiling within five minutes. Joy is underrated.
“By the way, I encountered a lot of resistance at first, because I was doing something new and unusual. Despite the fact that I’m pretty down to earth about it, people would ask me, ‘Surely you don’t actually believe you can heal burns with music?’ No, of course I don’t believe that!”
Your thesis has a very special acknowledgements section. Please tell us more about that!
“I thought music was a fun subject, so I wanted to do something creative with it, rather than just compiling an endless list of people who needed to be thanked. So I created a list of requested songs, a bit like requesting a particular song for someone at a pub. It ranges from serious songs such as ‘I’m Every Woman’ by Whitney Houston for my PhD supervisor, since I learned so much from her, to more ironic songs, such as Enya’s ‘Orinoco Flow’ for one of my friends. There’s a bit of a story behind certain songs, such as ‘Banana Boat’, which I picked for my colleague Bram, who also spent some time in Cape Town. If I had a 6am start, I didn’t have time to have breakfast, so I’d always eat a banana in my car. We’d sometimes go on a trip together, and he’d always comment on all the banana skins in my car.” View the entire Spotify playlist here.
What’s on the cover?
“The back cover features an infusion bag saying ‘Made in SA’, a little reference to South Africa. On the front cover you can see a sheet with all the surgical instruments needed for the surgery to be performed on it. Only this time a xylophone and headphones are lying next to the scalpel and scissors. Often we will have thought of all the things we can do to make children’s stay at a hospital a little more pleasant, but next time, consider including music in those thoughts!”