Healing Sound

The sweet notes of her harp sounded out above the nerve-racking alarms and beeps emitted by the noisy high-tech machines of the ICU.

Margaret Regan, Jacob Chinn photo

Acclaimed UA harpist Carrol McLaughlin has played her harp in concert halls around the world, from Japan to Brazil, from New York to London. But one day in June 2012, she hauled her massive instrument into a decidedly different performance venue: the intensive care unit at the University of Arizona Medical Center.

With the help of a team of UA scientists, McLaughlin was about to participate in an experiment, testing the hypothesis that live harp music can aid in healing. She would play the harp for 10 minutes for individual ICU patients in private bedside concerts. The scientists would monitor the results, comparing the music listeners to a control group of patients who would simply relax for 10 minutes with no music. 

The first patient McLaughlin was to perform for had been in a coma for three days. A kindly nurse cautioned her that the patient’s condition was grave. 

“I don’t know if he’ll hear you,” the nurse said. “I don’t think he’s coming out of the coma.”

McLaughlin settled in anyway and began to pluck her strings, creating a new composition on the spot. The sweet notes of her harp sounded out above the nerve-racking alarms and beeps emitted by the noisy high-tech machines of the ICU.

Seven minutes into her 10-minute solo, the comatose patient stirred. He slowly reached his hand to his oxygen mask, pulled it off, and spoke. 

“Thank you,” he said.

McLaughlin, a distinguished professor of music, has been head of the harp department in the UA School of Music for 33 years. Yet she was born “where there were no harp teachers, and not even a harp,” she says: Grande Prairie, Alberta, in Canada’s remote north. 

She learned about the instrument when she was just 4 years old. 

“My grandmother used to read me a story about an angel who gave her harp to someone who was crying. When I first heard the story, I said, ‘I want a harp.’ It was pretty decisive.”

Her father, a jazz saxophonist, arranged to have a harp shipped in, and before long the young musician was traveling long distances for lessons. 

“I’d fly to New York,” and sometimes travel to Seattle, she says. “I was pro at 14. I played with the Calgary Philharmonic.” 

Before landing at the UA in the late 1970s to pursue her doctorate in musical arts, she studied harp at the University of Michigan, trained privately with a teacher in London, and got her master’s at Juilliard.

The UA School of Music is “spectacular,” she says. “So creative.” As if on cue, music played by a student harpist floats into her office from a nearby rehearsal studio. 

“I’ve loved it here as a student and as a teacher,” she says. 

Perhaps inspired by the angel in that long-ago storybook, McLaughlin has long been interested in “sound healing.” In the 1980s, she recalls, David Woods, then director of the School, “could walk up to a crying baby and sing a pitch. The baby would stop crying.

“Every human has a pitch, and Woods taught me how to hear it. You can train yourself to hear what that vibration is.”

When people are troubled, suffering from depression, say, or kidney disease — or critical cardiac issues — that pitch is thrown off-kilter.

A musician sensitive to sound healing can not only detect what the person’s proper pitch is, but also know which notes to play to right the discord. 

To illustrate the point, she walks over to her harp. She can hear my pitch, she says, and knows which notes to play to put it in balance. She sits down and strums the strings, playing music tailored specifically to me. It is so beautiful that tears fill my eyes.

“I know from experience that sound healing has had a strong impact on many people,” McLaughlin says. “My colleagues had the science. My desire was to substantiate what I already knew.” 

In 2012, the harpist approached Ann Marie Chiasson, a professor in the UA’s Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, to devise an experiment. Chiasson brought in Ann Linda Baldwin, a professor of physiology and psychology who researches the physiological effects of stress. 

A cardiothoracic surgeon from the Center for Integrative Medicine, Gulshan Sethi, helped the team get permission to conduct the project in the ICU. The group decided to work with 50 patients in the music group and 50 in the control group over the course of several weeks, getting signed permission from the patients or from their families.

Baldwin measured each patient’s heart and respiratory rates, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, and heart rate variability both before and after the session. Each patient who was able was asked to rate the level of pain before and after 10 minutes of McLaughlin’s music or, for the control group, a quiet rest period.

For each of the participants in the experimental group, the harpist played a composition she created on the spot in response to the patient’s own pitch.

When the data was collected, the researchers found that the music did not have a significant impact on most of the physical measures. Nevertheless, Chiasson noted in the research article published after the experiment that heart rate variability “trended toward a decrease after intervention,” a finding she believed would be worth exploring in a larger study.

But the relief that the seriously ill patients got from their pain was spectacular. By their own estimation, they reported an average 27 percent reduction in pain after listening to 10 minutes of music. 

The findings could encourage a change in hospital practices.

“All three of us felt the horrific impact of the alarms going off in the ICU,” McLaughlin says. “I would feel the shift in a patient’s fever. I hope people realize the positive impact of the harp music.”

When the experiment ended and McLaughlin had packed up her harp, a nurse asked her if she would mind performing one time more. A dying man, not in the study, had heard the music. He was to go into hospice later that day and asked if the harpist would play for him.

“I played,” she says, “and I felt great energy from him.”

Afterward, his puzzled doctor found him so improved that he changed the hospice order and sent the man home.

“It’s anecdotal, but these things happened,” McLaughlin says. “We don’t understand yet about sound healing. Two hundred years from now they’ll look back on us and think how little we knew.

“I view this as the start of research.”