How Music Heals Us: An Interview With Dr. Stephan Quentzel


In honor of “Music Is Good For You” month, we sat down to chat with Dr. Stephan Quentzel about some of the amazing ways he and his colleagues are channeling music’s unique power into healthcare. Dr. Quentzel is triple board-certified in psychiatry, family medicine, and holistic medicine. Not only is he a private practitioner in New York City, he also serves as the Medical Director of The Louis Armstrong Center for Music & Medicine in Manhattan’s Beth Israel Hospital, where the healing power of music plays a dynamic role in a variety of treatments.

Hi Dr. Quentzel! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with us.


What is it like at the Louis Armstrong Center For Music? What kinds of patients come to the center, and what kind of treatment do they receive?

Well, musical therapy is useful in relaxing people – whether it’s going into surgery or dealing with pain. There’s a lot of data on the psychological and brain physiology changes that come with music. They help one to relax, to feel less pain, to feel less tension or anxiety, and that’s a big benefit when you’re going into surgery or dealing with medical or psychiatric issues.

There are also a lot of uses for music therapy in pediatric cases. Kids tend to be particularly responsive to music in two important ways. One is the physiology of the relaxation response, the opposite of the stress response. The other is that kids tend to be a little more open than adults, and music can serve a useful role as an avenue of expression. Even though they’re not musicians per se, they can use music as an avenue of expression to deal with their fears, their guilt, their anxiety about the medical situation they find themselves in.

Even in the NICU, dealing with newborns who are undergoing medical problems, and their attentive parents who are stressed by the situation, music therapy helps. You can literally see the difference when you look at the monitor and watch the breathing rate or the heart rate of these newborns. It runs the gamut of physiological and psychological benefits, from cradle to grave. And music therapy is applied throughout Beth Israel Medical Center for a variety of these benefits.

Is there a special place in medicine for music that is familiar to us? For instance, when treating a person with Alzheimer’s, would a music therapist use pop music from the patient’s youth?

Without a doubt, that is the case. For example, we’ve all had this experience where you hear just two or three notes of a song you knew as a child and it all rushes back. The memory trigger of music, with its own unique pathways in the brain, can very much generate long term memories and bring back some of that material. It can be particularly comforting for people wrestling with a variety of things late in life, Alzheimer’s being one of them.

There are also a variety of debilitating illnesses where the calming effect of tapping into those joyful childhood memories through music has a real, significant impact on quality of life in the moment. Even at a physiological level.

For example?

For example, someone who has had a stroke and can no longer speak. The hard wiring, the nerve networks of the brain for speech are different than for singing. So someone who has had a stroke and can’t speak can still sing! You can teach them to sing their expression, their needs, rather than speak them. In essence, you can get them singing and slowly remove the melody and just leave the lyrics. So if they can sing to you what they need to express, rather than speak it, it offers up a nerve path around the damage of the stroke and still allows them to communicate, when they apparently couldn’t through just speech.

You serve autistic children at the clinic. What advice would you give to parents who are helping their kids deal with autism? Are there special ways for them to incorporate music into their daily lives?

Absolutely. The use of music therapy in autism is a very rich therapeutic modality. It’s used intensely to help folks suffering from autism. Music seems to provide, at a physiological level as well as an interpersonal level, a language or an avenue for connection where autistic kids respond when they aren’t through other ways of connecting.

The music can vary for what resonates with a particular autistic child. Some respond to rhythm, some respond to melodies, different types of music. A good music therapist can find the type of music that connects best with the individual kid. But a parent can do the same, and go through a series of instruments, a series of styles, singing or no singing, percussion and rhythm emphasis, melodic emphasis, the pace, to find things that resonate most intensely with the unique autistic child that they have in their family, and to help draw connection with the child and the rest of the world.

A music therapist can certainly help to expedite that process and refine it, but a parent on his or her own can experiment with different instruments, different approaches to music, and find what really connects with the child.

You also manage a program that’s specifically tailored to the healthcare needs of musicians. What do you provide for artists and performers that they may not be able to get at a regular hospital?

Well, we’re geared toward comprehensive care, so we provide medical care, psychiatric care, holistic care, music therapy, and music psychotherapy for musicians and performing artists, in a context where the realities of being a performer are understood. So it’s sort of a friendly home for musicians. In addition, we provide psychiatric care and music psychotherapy for musicians, which is an interesting perspective, because there are some psychiatric conditions that tend to be present in musicians more often than the general public. Things like insomnia, anxiety, depression, bi-polar disorder, substance abuse, and then a variety of life stressors.

Because every gig is your last, you’re never assured that you have work in the future unless you’re in the upper, tiny echelon of performers. So we take them, as we say, “from Broadway to subway”. Music psychotherapy for musicians is a fascinating process, in that we use music as one of the languages to reach the psycho-dynamic material, or the unconscious material of musicians, since it’s the language that can be useful for them as an expressive outlet. There are psychological issues that are over-represented in the musician population that we are particularly sensitive to treating. Things as run-of -the-mill as stage fright, but also more complex things.

What sort of special psychological pressures do musicians face?

We all have a “true self” internally and an external or “false self” that we present to the world. Everybody has that. But it tends to be magnified in performers, where they have a stage persona and an internal persona. That large difference can generate a great deal of conflict, where the internal self and the external self are not meshing. It can generate a lot of psychological disturbance. Once your sense of valuation is no longer internal, no longer judged by yourself but by the audience, you’re in a lot of trouble because ultimately you can never get enough applause to have a sense of self-worth. You can start playing in a small bar and graduate up to playing in a football stadium, but you can never get enough applause if you’re looking for external validation.

So those are a few facets of what makes us unique in trying to help musicians and performing artists with the things that they wrestle with. But of course, a lot of it is overlap with what the general public has. These aren’t unique issues, they just may be magnified when it comes to musicians and performing artists.

Do you think struggling with psychological issues or depression as an adolescent can play a part in people initially immersing themselves in music?

That’s an interesting question. You start to talk a little bit about left brain/right brain and the folks who were born with the more creative right brain emphasis. They have to meet the same day-in and day-out pressures from the rational world, which as an adolescent might be school.

But an adult has to put food on the table and pay the rent. These kinds of skills are often more in the logical brain. You know, like an accountant. An accountant may not be creative, but he can pay the bills. He has a brain that allows him to meet the demands of typical American life, that makes him employable, able to pay the rent, put food on the table, even if he does not have a particularly creative existence. So at least he doesn’t starve to death. He may suffer from the lack of creativity, but not suffer to the point where it jeopardizes his existence.

On the other hand, the performing artist or musician may very well be endowed with these creative abilities which are wonderful, and do a great deal of service to society as a whole – but can make it rather difficult in our society to pay the bills, to put food on the table and pay the rent. So they may not be suffering from a loss of creativity and what that brings to light, but if they can’t pay the rent, a lot of good their creativity does them!

So in that respect, you think our society puts special pressures on musicians?

Sure. Even when you look back to adolescence, we don’t have a particularly supportive system for the artist. We don’t have a social safety net that says: the arts are so important to us collectively that we should be pooling our resources (let’s say through a government program) to make sure that the artist doesn’t have to worry about housing, food, and supporting the family. We should, because what the artist brings is valuable to the rest of us. But in our culture, the artist still has to find a way to pay the bills.

So, there are a unique set of pressures that the artist faces – not because he’s an artist, but because he has the brain of an artist. That may not satisfy some of the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” demands of our culture, even though it blesses him with the creativity that many of us wish we had. So it is fair to talk about some of the unique pressures or difficulties in meeting some of the normative demands which are so narrowly defined in our culture, when one is sort of born an artist. It’s a fair conversation to have.

Do you have any favorite artists that you find yourself returning to for their success in a healing context?

When I’m looking for emotional stuff I tend to end up with “gut music,” simple folk stuff which resonates in the gut. Or some of the more transcendental jam music, psychedelic kind of stuff. But also from the jazz world, somebody like Louis Armstrong is such a pioneer, he’ll be known 300 years from now the way we look back and know Bach or Mozart. There are hundreds and hundreds of composers that we don’t know now, or only musical historians know. The biggest pop bands of today will be a blip on the historical record. They will not matter 300 years from now. But Louis Armstrong will. Muddy Waters will. Bob Dylan will, as real unique genres of music that have long term lives. So for me, some of those real pioneers have ways of touching the soul in powerful ways.

Thank you so much, Dr. Quentzel!

Thank you!

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