• Music for Pain Relief: An Interview with Penny Brill

    Posted on April 23, 2014 by Jessica Ryan in Pain Management.


    When PSO Violist Penny Brill received a breast cancer diagnosis in 1999, she faced a number of challenges, including fear and uncertainty about the future. In an interview with WWFM last fall, Penny explained how music helped her cope with these feelings. She spoke about listening to music, especially Irish music, which has “a sense of hope about the rhythms and about the spirit of the music” and said “that’s what I needed—a sense that there was hope there—and the music gave me that . . . I found that music could help in all aspects of diagnosis and recovery, and during the surgeries.”[i] In particular, Penny used music, as well as a number of other tools, to alleviate pain.


    Penny Brill

    Last week I interviewed Penny about pain management strategies. She told me that to lessen feelings of pain, you can try to reduce your stress, get enough sleep, practice mindfulness, and/or do breathing exercises where you breathe out more slowly than you breathe in. You can also use trance music to create a state of self-hypnosis and send your awareness away from the pain. Although you might find all of these strategies helpful, today we’ll look more closely at another three of Penny’s recommendations—exercise, control, and engagement—all of which can incorporate music.

    When you’re ill, you might find it hard to motivate yourself to move, but gentle exercise can reduce stiffness and pain. If you think you can benefit from exercise, try listening to a song or playlist that gains volume and tempo to find the inspiration to get moving. Penny says, “Go from something that matches your half-awake state to something with more energy, and your body will try to match the energy level of the music so that you can overcome inertia from creaky limbs and fatigue. You will be able to ignore the feeling of not wanting to move.”[ii]

    In addition, you can relieve pain by combating feelings of helplessness and exercising control over your environment. For instance, you can use noise-canceling headphones to block out strange noises and listen to your favorite music in an after-surgery recovery room. By doing this, you can “bring your own environment into the hospital so that you’re in control of your sound environment. You’ll bring in your own history and preferences to block out what gets in the way of you recovering faster. You’re managing something, and that may lead to less pain.”[iii]

    Finally, you can use music to engage yourself. According to Penny, “If your full awareness is on pain, the pain can be more intense than if you distract yourself. Get totally absorbed in an activity, preferably something involving more than one sense, to be wholly engaged . . . This can send pain sensations and awareness to background . . . If you are involved in making music . . . you can be so far away that you don’t feel the pain at all.”[iv] In particular, musical activities including the added element of interaction with another individual or a group can engross you so much that you have no attention left to devote to your pain. Don’t think of music as a distraction, since when you try to distract yourself you’re still thinking about the thing you want to forget. Instead focus your entire attention on the music and allow it to totally captivate you.

    During her interview, Penny also shared stories about how she used music to manage her own pain and help another woman undergoing surgery do the same. Come back next week to hear more about her inspiring experiences!

    [i] Brill, Penny.  Interview with Rachel KatzA Tempo.  WWFM,  West Windsor.  26 Oct. 2013.  Radio.

    [ii] Brill, Penny.  Personal interview.  17 Apr. 2014.

    [iii] Ibid.

    [iv] Ibid.

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