David Knott and Betsy Hartman may not wear a white coat or operate a stethoscope, but for patients at Seattle Children’s, they offer a unique kind of medicine in the form of music. Both board-certified music therapists, Knott and Hartman pair their musical talents with their passion to help heal patients at Seattle Children’s Hospital through music therapy.

Music therapy is the use of music to achieve non-musical goals, such as reducing the perception of pain, providing opportunities for non-verbal expression and facilitating rehabilitation and relaxation. Knott and Hartman use singing, listening to music and playing instruments to help treat patients of all ages spanning a variety of health issues.

The Music Therapy service at Seattle Children’s Hospital began 15 years ago and has grown ever since. In fiscal year 2014, there were 1,526 music therapy sessions conducted hospital wide. Knott sees patients throughout the hospital while Hartman focuses her time in the Cancer Unit.

Music therapy sessions typically last between 15-60 minutes and patients may participate in singing, song writing, instrumental improvisation, music composition, dancing, recording or learning a new instrument such as the piano, guitar or ukulele.

“Music is powerful and I love seeing the transformation in a patient after spending some time with them,” said Knott. “Our sessions offer a welcomed distraction from a patient’s illness or condition, it provides them with a time to enjoy just being a kids and it offers profound health benefits.”

Music for the soul

Five-year-old Cancer patient, Allistaire Anderson, who was diagnosed with Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) at just 21 months, has been receiving music therapy treatment since November 2014 with Hartman. Allistaire’s session is one that she looks forward to each week and it offers her a very special kind of medicine.

“We’ve received wonderful medical treatment at Seattle Children’s for Allistaire’s body,” said her mother Jai Anderson.  “Betsy enlivens Allistaire’s spirit through music.  She just lights up the moment Betsy enters the room.”

The Anderson family was recently featured in a PBS cancer special that highlights Seattle Children’s music therapy service. Watch the video above.

Linking to health benefits

While some may think listening to music is just an enjoyable way to pass the time, it actually has a beneficial affect on the brain.

“Both listening and playing music has a unique effect on the brain. Participating in music activates numerous structures responsible for timing of movement, memory and emotion. From subcortical structures all the way up to our frontal lobes, music affects our brain, and so it can be applied for positive health and medical outcomes,” said Knott.

The effects of music therapy have been attributed to the following:

  • Creating distractions for children during procedures
  • Encouraging expression and communication
  • Reducing anxiety and pain
  • Increasing motivation and opportunities for engagement
  • Encouraging patients to communicate thoughts and feelings
  • Providing a sense of control and normalcy
  • Increasing self esteem
  • Providing an opportunity for age-appropriate play and purposeful engagement
  • Assisting with rehabilitation and movement