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Editor's Commentary on "The Songs We Share: On Music and Medicine"

 , March 15, 2019

Recently, I visited a dying patient in the hospital as he was arranging hospice services. His eyes were surrounded by creases worn by a lifetime of smiles. The room was filled with family. After my visit, I hovered in the doorway, feeling as though I were part of the touching tableau and also outside of it. As a physician this duality is not unfamiliar: to have our own emotions, swept up with the stories of our patients’ lives, and yet also to keep a mind as to how to guide, change, cajole, and alter the arc of the patient story towards better quality of health. To feel that we are at times orchestrators of the clinical encounter, and at other times swept up ourselves in the orchestration.
Henry Bair's piece, "The Songs We Share: On Music and Medicine" speaks to this orchestral duality. The author, also a musician, tells the story of how he bonded with a dying patient over their favorite musical works. The patient, Alfred, who initially rebuffs the author’s attempts to connect on a personal level, finds that he shares a true love of music with the author. It is a touching piece with thoughtful reflections about the role of music in medicine. Indeed, in this story, music serves as another mode of healing and connection; but it also serves as metaphor and contrast to medicine: “In health, we play our own songs—we are our own songs—heard by physicians with a discerning ear. Disease is a tension, and we await our safe delivery to our home notes.”
For so many of our patients, as we are swept up in the orchestra, we worry that there will be no harmonious resolution. For some, the musical tensions are never resolved. But in an affirming end to the story, we find that it is through music and music’s power over the “cocktail of memories, emotions, and sensations” that Alfred seems to find some relief. And through remembering his love for music, Alfred is able to help bring the end of his song “closer to his home note.”

Stephen Raithel