Our Patients

Adding Music to Medicine: A Resounding Success


The man was in a wheelchair, parked in the waiting room of the Emergency Department, as a Stanford Hospital & Clinics musician, seated nearby, played his guitar. Slowly, the man lifted his head and spoke in a quiet voice. "You're saving my life," he said.

Two floors up, in a room in the cardiac care unit, a woman sat in a chair next to her bed, her husband keeping her company in another chair across the room. A Hospital musician joined them and began to strum a guitar and sing, "That's All," the 1959 hit that begins "I can only give you love that lasts forever." The woman sang along softly. Her husband nodded his head in time to the music. When the song was over, she turned slightly toward the musician and smiled. "You made my afternoon," she said.

At the Stanford Cancer Center, Krista Bowman prepared for her hours-long chemotherapy treatment. A Hospital musician arranged herself on an upholstered bench facing Bowman. The musician drew her harp to her shoulder and put her hands to its strings, and out poured a rippling melody that cast its warmth all around the large treatment room. Bowman smiled and relaxed back in her chair.

The Black Olive Quartet brings a jazzy note at a Bing Concert Series' performance.

More than an afterthought

Six days a week at Stanford Hospital & Clinics, music is, by design, an audible and effective element in healing. Within each month, every part of the Hospital receives a scheduled visit from a musician. Patients can request a special visit from a musician, for any reason. They can order CDs from the Hospital's collection to play in their room. Or, if able, they can attend the Bing Concert Series twice weekly concerts in the Hospital's atrium, a central open space four stories high that is illuminated by a wall composed entirely of windows. Or they might hear and see a musician playing in the hallway of their care unit.

There is something about music that goes around the intellect and straight to the heart.

-Hospital musician Barbary Grant

In the summer, the sound of music from a concert in an outdoor patio might drift through the Hospital's buildings. And when patients and their families arrive for their first visit at the Cancer Center, live music greets them from a musician playing a baby grand piano, harp or guitar. The musicians even go across the street to play for patients in the Hospital-owned apartments that are a transition from hospital to home. For the Hospital's physicians, nurses and staff, the music is a means to lessen their stress, too.

"There is something about music that goes around the intellect and straight to the heart," said Hospital musician Barbary Grant. "People don't even think about it until the music starts, and then they realize they're breathing easier. It transforms their state of mind."

The Marin Dance Theatre performed Sophie and the Enchanted Toyshop in the Hospital atrium for a special holiday concert.

Each year, for more than 15 years, the Hospital has expanded music's presence as an "important and defining feature of our Hospital," said Barbara Ralston, Vice President of Guest Services and International Medicine. With the substantial support of donors with innovative vision and great generosity, Ralston said, "we will continue our commitment to music."

The feedback from staff, patients and their families, she added, "has been huge and positive and reinforced music’s importance and power in a healing environment."

We come with no agenda, no needles, no tubes to plug in.

-Hospital musician Barbra Telynor

A universal language beyond words

The Hospital's music program is one of the most robust in the country, said its director, Greg Kaufman. He organizes the series of concerts at different locations, manages the program's staff of six musicians and seeks out ways to fund new events. His long-lived love and knowledge of music and his own performance experience have translated into a wide variety of musical choices for patients.

In one month, listeners at the Bing Concert Series might catch jazz, classical or folk music, new and old, Latin American to Japanese to Celtic to big band, Tin Pan Alley and Jelly Roll Morton. Kaufman works hard for programming that represents a full library of music's many styles. The same variety emerges when Hospital musicians play in their regular rounds.

These musicians always exercise compassionate sensitivity, shaping their music to a particular patient and circumstance. Harpist and singer Barbra Telynor may sometimes hum instead of singing the words of a song. Grant often plays less well-known music because it impossible to know what kind of memories a popular song might trigger. Underlying all the music is the idea that patients need do nothing but listen, and that is what distinguishes music from other elements in a medical setting, Telynor said. "We come with no agenda, no needles, no tubes to plug in. And we stay as long as you want."

Over the winter holidays, Kaufman adds an extra program to celebrate the season. Last year, the Marin Dance Theatre brought more than three dozen of its youthful dancers to debut a production of the ballet, Sophie and the Enchanted Toyshop, on a temporary stage set up in the atrium. More than 200 patients and staff found places to watch. For an hour, they enjoyed the music of Rossini, Respighi, Strauss and Saint-Saens that filled the atrium's great space.

Harpist Barbary Grant is one of six Hospital musicians who play in patient rooms, in the Cancer Center and in the hallways of care units.

Soothing stress, rallying hope

Music as an instrument of healing, in particular the harp, has existed for several thousand years. The Bible includes a famous story about David soothing a tense King Saul with his harp playing. Only recently has science caught up to parse out what goes on in the human body when it hears music. Research evidence is mounting to support the positive physical and emotional effects of music.

Dr. Steven D. Chang believes strongly in addressing the emotional dimension of illness, especially for his cancer patients. "A lot of these patients are living day to day," he said. "They're not worried about a year from now. They live in the moment and music helps them do that."


Patients and families can experience the comfort of music in a variety of ways at Stanford Hospital & Clinics. The Hospital's music program features live music available six days a week, whether at a patient's bedside, on the hospital nursing units, in the Stanford Cancer Center lobby or through a weekly concert series. All the music services are free. The program's regularly scheduled events include:

  • Ambient Piano Series at Stanford Cancer Center, noon to 3 p.m. every Wednesday and Thursday. Listeners can enjoy talented pianists playing soothing and inspiring music from a broad repertory of styles in a casual environment in the lobby of the Stanford Cancer Center.
  • Bing Concert Series in the Hospital atrium, 12:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Fridays. A wide range of musical performers, both instrumental and vocal, present music in a venue that's open to patients, families, and visitors and staff.
  • Music on the Hospital Units. Musicians play on nursing units throughout the Hospital six days a week.
  • Music at bedside. Patients can request a Hospital harpist or guitarist to play at their bedside. This service is provided six days a week.
  • Reller Summer Concert Series. These live concerts are held on the patio of the Center for Advanced Medicine every other Thursday, 12:30 p.m. June through October. Listeners can choose from a wide variety of music styles while enjoying the beautiful grounds and typically great Northern California weather.
  • Recorded music on request. Portable CD players and a selection of CDs are available for patient use.

As director of the Hospital's Cyberknife program, which provides computer image-driven radiation treatment for cancer patients, Chang has instituted a protocol that includes asking a patient about his or her favorite music. Hearing that music played during procedures, he said, "takes away the monotony and helps them relax." When patients have music during their treatment, he said, they don't need as much anti-anxiety medication. Music, he said, "plays a large role in helping patients adjust and adapt and work through their difficult times."

For patients who may have to visit the Hospital repeatedly or stay for a long time, the chance to hear live music on a regular basis and get to know the musicians becomes part of their routine. Joe Silva received weeks of inpatient treatment at Stanford. Once he and his wife Kristen found out about the Wednesday and Friday Bing Concert Series, they became regulars. The music, Silva said, evolved into an important part of his stay.

And Grant has been playing for Bowman in the Cancer Center for months now, at each of her chemotherapy sessions. Bowman is especially receptive and appreciative. "I grew up with music and played music myself," she said. Watching Grant play "gives you something to do. It's cool to have something else to think about. I really love the music."

People remember the music they have heard at the Hospital, Telynor said. "It's something that's quite magical and wonderful. People recall it and recall the Hospital in a more positive and supportive way because there's something tender that happened there."