January 22, 2018 2:00 pm JST

Patients heal to the sound of music in Japan

Hospitals are turning to culture to improve the wellness of their sick and staff

NAOYA SHIMADA, Nikkei staff writer

Musicians perform during a Christmas concert at the National Hospital Organization's Osaka National Hospital in December.

OSAKA -- A trip to the doctor often comes with a dose of angst, which is why some Japanese hospitals are trying to ease it by feeding patients a soothing diet of art, video and music.

While not exactly a cultural tour de force, the added service appears to help reduce stress, both for patients as well as doctors and nurses.

Like most city hospitals, the outpatient waiting room at Mimihara General Hospital in Osaka can get noisy to the point of distraction. Slow piano music quietly piped in helps take the edge off. "I feel more at ease when I hear music like this. It's relaxing," observed 34-year-old outpatient Tomoe Takeuchi.

The background music was composed specially for hospitals and comprises 22 pieces. Titles such as "Bond" and "Hope" -- each about five minutes long -- loop continuously from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The hospital commissioned Masafumi Komatsu, a musician and a professor at Kyoto Seika University, to compose the music. Komatsu, who studies the psychology of sound, has written and produced ambient music for a number of public spaces, including Kyoto Tower and Kyoto Tango Railway.

Komatsu said writing music for hospitals was a challenge owing to the varying mental states of people in the facilities, including patients and their families as well as doctors and staff. In short, he risked producing music that some would find annoying.

"I had to restrain the dynamics while trying not to create something too mundane," Komatsu said.

He said it took about a year to research and complete the music. Over the course of the project, he surveyed about 400 people at the hospital, including patients, doctors and staff, asking how they spend their days there and their views on music. He also studied the types of noises at the hospital and room acoustics.

"Your ears hear music whether you are conscious or not, so I aimed for music that calms rather than jars while at the same time trying to get a sound that could help cancel other noise," Komatsu explained.

Keeping spirits up

Other hospitals have different approaches. Starting in January 2016, Chiba University Hospital, located just east of Tokyo, has allowed patients to take MRIs accompanied by videos and music of their choice. The service was introduced to help patients relax.

An MRI requires patients to lie faceup inside a narrow tunnellike scanner. During the approximately 20-minute examination, a patient can get nervous and start moving about, negatively affecting the scan, according to Yoshitada Masuda, chief radiologic technologist at the hospital.

He said the number of re-examinations has declined since introducing the video and music service. "It successfully reduces patients' mental stress," Masuda said.

A fairly common practice for maintaining mental wellness is through hospital concerts. The National Hospital Organization's Osaka National Hospital has held about 60 concerts since 1997. Last December, about 100 patients and staff gathered for one.

"It's difficult for me to go out so I was really looking forward to it," said an 81-year-old female inpatient just after attending the event. "It was a great change of pace."

Music therapy is increasing all over Japan. Many believe music helps maintain physical and mental health and aids recovery from injury. Researchers see it working for numerous symptoms and age brackets, with benefits ranging from improving immunity to slowing dementia.

Using music as therapy is thought to have originated in the U.S., initially being applied to soldiers in World War II. After establishment of the American Music Therapy Association in 1950, the practice spread mainly in Western countries.

In 2001, the Japanese Music Therapy Association was founded in Tokyo by local music and medical professionals. Music therapists, trained and certified by the association, totaled about 3,000 in April 2016, serving mainly at hospitals and nursing care facilities.

But not everyone is convinced of the therapy's benefits. Masako Otera, a professor at Shikoku Junior College in the western Japanese city of Tokushima, said the effects of music therapy are not clearly evident due to the different ways research is conducted and how the therapy's impacts are measured.

"It still needs more study," she said. "Key issues included ensuring patient trust and how to maintain the quality [of treatment]."

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