Music and Sound in the Future Hospital

Below is the text of an article I wrote for the London Arts in Health Forum, as a guest blogger for 2019’s ‘Creativity and Wellbeing Week’. It seems to have disappeared from their website now, so I decided to republish it here.

For over three years I’ve worked with CW+, the charity for Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, to research innovative uses of music technology within an acute healthcare setting.  Over this time I’ve found myself working with both patients and staff across many of the hospital’s varied environments, and have come to see that the effective management of a soundscape requires knowledge not only of music and sound but also the technology that can deliver and control it.  Here I will give some examples of how we at CW+ use new technology to enhance the accessibility, quality and personalisation of music and sound within the hospital.

But first: why should we consider playing music or other sounds in a hospital environment?  After all, excessive noise levels in hospital can be prohibitive to patient recovery, disrupting sleep and contributing to anxiety.  But equally important is the qualitative experience of the hospital soundscape: the addition of pleasant sounds can positively affect a patient’s experience, providing a useful mask for unwanted clinical noise whilst also providing an enjoyable distraction.  Music is often used for this purpose, and its positive effects on listeners have been shown to include reductions in anxiety and pain, slower breathing and heart rates, and reductions in stress hormones.  However, the question of what kind of music is best for this is open to debate: everybody has different tastes, and many listeners now expect to have a choice.

At CW+ we have drawn on new technologies to address this challenge.  Take, for example, a busy waiting area – normally a tricky space for which to curate music due to the diversity of the users of the space: using the programming environment ‘Puredata’, I was able to build a jukebox app which takes votes from waiting patients and uses them to construct a playlist according to the tastes of those listeners.  In this way we can not only try to reach the best stylistic mix for those patients, but also create a deeper engagement for listeners by giving them a sense of control over their sonic environment.

Non-musical sound also has a role in healthcare settings: studies have shown that natural sounds are not only pleasant for listeners but can also reduce their blood pressure and anxiety levels.  This year CW+ has undertaken its first ever soundscape commission, tasking the East-London based ‘Coda to Coda’ studio with creating a natural soundscape to complement the ‘Relax Digital’ video screens in several waiting areas.  This will be delivered through a multi-channel surround sound speaker system, setting a new standard for audio immersion in a healthcare setting.

In the ‘Future Hospital’, technology will play an even greater role in enhancing patients’ experience and will fundamentally effect how we approach environmental sound.  For example, the ability to connect digital sound with live patient data is now possible thanks to new ‘sensor-rich’ clinical environments, and this is the impetus behind one of our most significant music research projects: ‘Pulse Music’, a system which can automatically adapt the tempo of a piece of music in response to a listener’s rising or falling heart rate.

These examples show that the role of music and sound in healthcare settings is continuing to develop and expand, particularly as new technologies bring with them greater opportunities for the control of a patient’s environment.  At CW+ we will continue to look ahead at how we can empower patients to take control of their sonic environment, and how we can make the ‘Future Hospital’ sound even better.

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