• Relieving Stress through Music at the VA

    Posted on February 12, 2014 by Jessica Ryan in Relaxation.


    Last year I accompanied the PSO’s Principal Flute, Lorna McGhee, on a visit to the local VA and followed her as she traveled from room to room and offered to play some tunes for the veterans. At one point during the visit, she encountered an actively dying veteran who was surrounded by family. Lorna gently and quietly serenaded the group by playing “Danny Boy” and “Sunset on the Somme” on her alto flute.

    One of the VA’s music therapists, Ginger Dougherty, provided feedback after the visit. She said:

    This family had someone doing a vigil around the clock for a day or so before Lorna’s visit. The music was really soothing to them as they went through anticipatory grief and the stress associated with this. Lorna showered them with healing music, which was really good. One or two of the family members cried, which was good because they let their guard down. It was cathartic; not painful. The music was a healthy conduit for feeling grief. You could see the tension release.[i]

    Ginger and the VA’s other music therapist, Jerry Coyne, often use music to relax veterans who need help getting to sleep or managing pain. When I interviewed them last week, they both agreed that the CD playlists created by music therapist Helen Bonny generally work best for the veterans they see.


    Lorna McGhee, PSO Principal Flute, plays a solo for veterans participating in a cognitive therapy group at the VA Pittsburgh Healthcare System.

    Bonny is famous for developing Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), defined as “a method of self-exploration in which classical music is used to access the imagination. It includes listening to classical music in a relaxed state, allowing the imagination to come to conscious awareness and sharing these awareness’s [sic] with a guide. The interaction among listeners, music and guide is what makes GIM unique.”[ii] Over the years, Bonny designed a number of GIM CDs for various uses. Her CDs for stress relief are characterized by tranquil pieces of classical music, such as “Clair de Lune” by Debussy and “Intermezzo” from Bizet’s Carmen.

    During our interview, Ginger and Jerry gave me a brief overview of how Bonny selected music for relaxation. To begin with, Bonny believed that the best music for stress relief is not associated with a particular memory. She thought you shouldn’t listen to music with lyrics (unless the lyrics are sung in another language) to help avoid associations. At our meeting, Ginger added that people familiar with classical music may also want to select their music carefully so as not to bring up negative or disturbing memories. For instance, classical music fans may remember Barber’s “Adagio for Strings as a key part of the soundtrack to the war movie Platoon, so although it is slow and beautiful, they may not find it calming. In addition, Bonny thought carefully about transitions and avoided jarring changes in tempo or key when curating her CDs. She also chose music with slow tempi to help calm listeners’ breathing and heart rates.

    Jerry has used Bonny’s CDs with multiple veterans who have found them effective. In our interview he particularly recalled giving a relaxation CD to one veteran who had psychiatric issues and couldn’t sleep. After Jerry told the veteran to listen to Bonny’s CD and breathe in time with the music, the veteran began to sleep better.

    Although many veterans find the Bonny CDs beneficial, Jerry and Ginger also use other aural stimuli, including music by composer Steve Halpern, music with world instruments, and environmental sounds, to help veterans relax. They have a variety of music at their disposal because, as mentioned in last week’s blog post, people can only relax if they’re listening to music that they like. Ginger illustrated this by saying, “Some people need Sturm und Drang, tension and release, like progressive muscle relaxation. Some guys want familiar music because of the insecurity of illness; they don’t know where the illness will take them.”[iii] In short, each veteran has unique preferences and needs that Ginger and Jerry need to consider when recommending music for relaxation.

    Jerry agreed. He remarked, “It’s extremely personal; everyone has their own music that works for them.”[iv] He also added that “some vets with hypervigilance may feel safer when engaging than when relaxing.”[v] In cases such as these, music therapists should choose music that will engross, rather than soothe, veterans since they feel most comfortable in this state.

    To further demonstrate that choosing relaxation music is a very personal affair, Ginger told a story about a veteran experiencing terminal restlessness, a condition where a body needs to get rid of excess energy when dying. In this particular instance, the veteran begged for Ginger’s help. She was trying to decide what music might relax this veteran when a nurse told her to try Mahler, so she chose an “up-and-down first movement from one of his tumultuous symphonies.”[vi] It actually calmed the veteran down, since as Ginger observed, “He needed to have intensive music because it was a catharsis.”[vii]

    Thankfully, with skilled music therapists like Ginger and Jerry, the veterans at the VA have knowledgeable staff on hand to help them find effective relaxation music that they enjoy. All of us at the PSO find their work very inspiring.

    [i] Dougherty, Virginia.  Personal interview.  6 Jan. 2014.

    [ii] Clark, M.  “Evolution of Bonny Method of GIM.”  Guided Imagery and Music: The Bonny Method and Beyond.   Ed. K. Burscia & D. Grocke. New Braunfels: Barcelona Publishers, 2002.  17.  Print.

    [iii] Dougherty, Virginia.  Personal interview.  6 Feb. 2014.

    [iv] Coyne, Jerome.  Personal interview.  6 Feb. 2014.

    [v] Ibid.

    [vi] Dougherty, Virginia.  Personal interview.  6 Feb. 2014.

    [vii] Ibid.

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