As a newcomer to the world of clinical work within an urban hospital, I was particularly taken aback by the constant cacophony of sounds I experienced. Years ago, when I spent time volunteering in both general and mental health hospitals, I was not nearly as aware of the vast soundscapes that surrounded me. Only when I re-entered the medical world as a music therapist did I become acutely aware of the onslaught of sounds that greeted me not only as I walked into the hospital, but on all the inpatient units, in the clinics, and even in places of administration. How, I wondered, do these sounds affect the patients? What about the staff? How do I get around or integrate myself into these sounds as a music therapist? Is that even possible? Does anyone else notice?
In my second summer of interning at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre in Toronto, Ontario, I worked with a patient who suggested that we co-create a song about the constant call bells, alarm bells, and intravenous infusion pump warning bells that seemed ceaseless and monotonous. He had wonderfully imaginative lyrical ideas, and together we found a tune to bring the words to life. Upon completion of the song, we performed it for the staff physicians and nurses, all of whom had a good laugh and possibly even paused to think twice about what the soundscape of the hospital was like for a patient. “These bells keep calling me back again, and again, and again”, went the lyrics of our incredibly apropos song. That line made me ponder the effects of those high-pitched dings and dongs beckoning the staff to attend to someone’s often urgent need. When I began wheeling my way through the hospital halls with my keyboard cart full of instruments, I began to take great pride in providing sounds that were harmonic, melodic, and often familiar. Nurses would encourage me to play in their nursing units, and doctors would walk by patient rooms and sing along to a line or two of a popular song emanating from the negative pressure isolation rooms, which typically sounded like a vacuum sucking air through a large vent. Why this sudden urgency to participate in the music? Upon reflection, I’ve realized that familiar musical sounds can have a relaxing effect, and can connect us to one another. I’ve had many conversations with health care professionals who have spoken about the positive effects of having a CD playing in a nursing station, or singing along to a favourite tune when they hear it coming from one of my sessions. Awareness of the effects of sounds in our workplace can promote positive change, whether that means using music to shift the soundscape of the environment, or even encouraging patients to use music to promote relaxation. The environments we work in can have a direct impact on our health and well-being both in and out of the workplace, and being aware of what those environmental sounds are can lead to steps to improve on it. Try playing a CD softly in a common space, or taking the time to remove yourself from the environment on a break if possible. You may be amazed at the impact of a small environmental change in sound!
SarahRose holds a Masters degree in music education from the University of Toronto, and a Masters degree in music therapy at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is the founder and coordinator of the first music therapy programs at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre and Kensington Hospice in Toronto. Her clinical work and research is focused mainly on quality of life for acute palliative care, hematology, and hospice populations. She is also a Suzuki music educator, piano accompanist and singer/songwriter.