How I Listen

Using Music To Re-Architect Hospitals [George Howard]

1 (1)Following his recent stay in hospital, George Howard reflects on music's potential to positively transform a hospital environment, in a manner which is not only cost effective for the hospital, but also benefits artists and rights holders.


Guest Post by George Howard on Forbes

You might have noticed that it’s been relatively quiet in George-landia. My paltry output in this space over the past month or so has largely been due to an unexpected surgery, hospitalization, and recovery period. (I’m fine.)

While my stay in the hospital was fortunately very brief, it was long enough to have certain aspects of this particular type of sensory experience really brought into stark relief.

My overarching observation is that Nurses – every single one of them – represent the very best of humanity. Kind, patient, genuinely caring, and tireless in their commitment; these people brought light to an otherwise very dark place.

“My overarching observation is that Nurses – every single one of them – represent the very best of humanity,” says George Howard, whose recent hospital stay caused him to consider how music could play a role in “re-architecting” hospitals. (AP Photo/M. Spencer Green)

The dark place upon which these Nurses shone their light was the hospital, generally. Certainly, one would expect the hospital in which I was laid up to be on the higher end of the spectrum in terms of features and general habitability; it services a relatively affluent geographic area outside of a major metropolitan city. And, thus, I can only imagine what hospitals in areas without these characteristics must be like. 

Over the course of a few days in a hospital, you become intimately familiar with your surroundings when they are limited to a small (shared) room, and “lap” of hallway. As I lay in my bed or waddled through the halls — my IV mechanism wobbling uneasily by my side like a blind, three-legged dog — the over-arching phrase that kept going through my mind was: “Cold-War era.”

This description may be somewhat offensive to the cold war, but hard edges, gray/past-its-use-by-mustard browns, and fluorescent lights signify this era in my mind.

In the midst of these sharp-edges and mono-palletes there hung some vaguely impressionistic paintings, and I increasingly found myself needing to go look upon these images. While not my favorite form of visual expression, these paintings represented a mental oasis from the ambient visual beige-ness. 

These paintings were small, but purposeful gestures. Someone had intentionally placed them, even while the vast majority of the space had been viewed as purely functional, or not thought about at all from an aesthetic perspective.

However small a gesture, these painting kind of kept me sane; I would stare at them and would feel momentarily removed from my surroundings.

It struck me that these small gestures – in a “broken windows” theory type of way – could be built upon, and that the logical next step should be music.

For instance, one of the many anachronistic elements of the hospital experience are those strange television sets that are suboptimal, both from a performance and design perspective. Still, these televisions do have speakers/headphone jacks. I, of course – once I knew my stay would be measured in days not hours – requested a decent set of headphones be brought to me from home, but why not make music part of the experience from the beginning by supplying some music via these pre-existing devices.

Had I been in a private room, I would have utilized my little Bluetooth speaker to change my environs via Sketches of Spain. In order to not disturb my roommate/block out his snoring, I utilized my headphones.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to imagine hospitals piping music in through all hallways, but certain areas/rooms could have some music.

There are dozens of other ways in which music could be incorporated, and its benefit would not only accrue to the patients and the tireless Nurses, but to musicians and rights holders as well.

The key to a re-invigorated music business revolves around utilizing technological innovation combined with natural human desire to better integrate music into places where it currently is not integrated. Hospitals represent a perfect use case for such an expansion.

Music changes environments in a way that few other things can, and does so in a far more cost-effective manner.

Large scale arenas, for instance, that a night before hosted our version of Roman Gladiators and those who go to cheer these MME participants, can be completely transformed a day later – via nothing more than a voice and a guitar or a piano – in such a way that the same arena feels like a completely different physical place.

Further, there is an increasing amount of data to support the idea that music in and of itself acts as medicine (I’ve chronicled numerous companies and artists operating in this space; such as: Beatie Wolfe, Shelter Music, SingFit, and MedRhythms).

My stay at the hospital was brief. Many are not so lucky. The idea that we will in any wholesale manner convert the physical structures into more hospitable environs is far-fetched. However, as we continue to see the transformative power of music as a viable alternative to prescription medicine, we should also view it as an alternative to costly structural changes to more easily alter and improve what is at best a difficult experience for so many.

By the way, I’m keenly aware that there are likely examples of music currently being used in this manner in hospitals (and other places), and that my experience may not be representative. To that end, please leave me comments about experiences of how music is being used in hospitals.

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