Music is medicine for the soul

For a group dealing with illness and death, music that probes mortality, resurrection and consolation is just what the doctors ordered

In our celebration of 500 years of the Reformation, we are gifted with an insight into the potency of music in health and wellbeing by Martin Luther’s claim that: “My heart . . . has often been solaced and refreshed by music when sick and weary.”

This wisdom is increasingly appreciated in healthcare. A key Finnish study showed that stroke patients recovered less well without access to their five favourite CDs: a recent major survey of all relevant studies indicated that access to music around the time of an operation was associated with modest reductions in pain and anxiety, reduced use of painkillers, and increased patient satisfaction.

Although not yet adequately recognised and funded, many of us wish to see wider introduction of both music therapy and music as key elements of healthcare, such as the programme of music that has been in place in Tallaght Hospital for more than a decade (see

The lay public might be less well aware of how closely music is enmeshed in the culture of medicine, which may arise from subliminal affinities between these areas of human experience. Prominent musical doctors include the composer Borodin, the conductor Guiseppe Sinopoli, country and western singer Hank Wangford, and rapper ZdoggMD.


Our own studies show more than half of medical students play or have played an instrument ( Yet we rarely celebrate this cultural participation in a collegial manner, and perhaps it is time that we more openly acknowledged this shared portal to the bigger picture in life and medicine.

Remarkable workshops

These elements came to life vividly at two remarkable workshops in Belfast and Dublin over the past six months for the nascent Irish Doctors' Choir. This arose because the European Doctors' Orchestra ( decided to scale new heights with a concert in Belfast in November featuring Mahler's mighty 2nd Symphony, the Resurrection Symphony.

As the work has an extensive choral finale, a bright idea was to recruit a chorus drawn from medical practitioners and students across the island. The take-up has been fantastic, generating a waiting list of highly qualified sopranos and altos, although there is still some space yet for tenors – a constant for choral societies around the world.

The workshops have been intensely pleasurable at many levels, with virtually all specialties represented ranging from medical students to those retired for many years, a very intergenerational project. In a profession with its due share of hierarchies, it is the first time in my professional life that students, trainees and specialists have worked together very much as equals, a treat in its own right!

Brilliantly constructed voyage

Having expected a direct exposure to the Mahler, we were initially surprised by the repertoire provided by the expert and engaging choirmaster, Brian MacKay ( In the event, we were taken on a brilliantly constructed voyage around Mahler, proving as ever that the elliptical beats the direct approach every time.

We started with the 18th-century hymn played at the funeral of the celebrated conductor, Han von Bülow, which inspired Mahler to use the poem in the symphony. Other elements included late-romantic German choral music and beautiful sonorous Russian religious music from Tchaikowsky and Rachmaninov, visceral in its impact.

For a group dealing with illness and death throughout our working lives, there is something extraordinarily reassuring and quietly energising about this participation in music probing mortality, resurrection and a deep sense of consolation. All of these composers had more extensive personal exposure to death than we do (Mahler experienced the death of six of his 12 siblings, most traumatically his beloved younger brother Ernst), and their music provides an extra layer of opportunities to see what is remarkable about humans faced with catastrophic losses in a way that the spoken word can only stumble over at best.


We ended the second workshop with a concert of choral, solo and singalong numbers for the residents of the Royal Hospital Donnybrook, in whose magnificent hall we had been rehearsing. This element of giving back is one which the choir sees as integral to its nature.

There is a clear desire to continue an Irish Doctors’ Choir after the Mahler, a testament to the organisers, our choir master, and those positive elements in medical life which make it such an interesting and satisfying career. If you are a Mahler fan, do consider joining us in the Ulster Hall on Sunday, November 26th, all proceeds will go to music and health charities.