Tuning into Health

UMDNJ-SOM’s music medicine program strikes a chord

Combine one experimental treatment with one passionate professor and two Grammy nominations; you’ll get a music medicine program.

It started as a last resort. Richard T. Jermyn, DO, had a patient, Melody Gardot, a young woman who had been in a car accident and suffered a traumatic brain injury, a fractured pelvis and damage to her spine. Dr. Jermyn, the director of the NeuroMusculoskeletal Institute (NMI) at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine (UMDNJ-SOM) in Stratford, had been working with Gardot for more than six months. Although osteopathic manipulative treatment was helping her a bit, she was not seeing results from cognitive therapy and medication.

One day in Dr. Jermyn’s office, Gardot said to him, “None of this is working. What are we going to do next?”

Dr. Jermyn thought about other options. He asked Gardot what she had done for fun before the accident.

“I used to play the piano,” she said.

Dr. Jermyn took her off most of her medications, halted the other treatments save for OMT, and prescribed daily piano playing.

After months and months without improvement, Gardot saw progress quickly. She played for hours daily, and the playing helped to improve her memory, movement and motor skills. She started performing, and traveling to and from venues helped her recover faster as well. She also started socializing again.

Dr. Jermyn’s work with Gardot was his first foray into music medicine. He says he took a purely osteopathic approach to her treatment.

“When we think of holistic medicine, it’s taking into account the physical, spiritual and emotional,” he says. “Osteopathic physicians think outside the box. I tried to find ways to communicate with her and to get improved function for her, which is what the music did for her.”

Gardot eventually turned her therapeutic piano playing into a career. She brought Dr. Jermyn an album she made. He initially didn’t realize that it was from a professional label.

“I thought it was something her family did,” he said. “I put it in a drawer.”

But Gardot came back to tell him she was going on tour.

“I found out that she was big in Europe,” Dr. Jermyn says. “And this was going to be her first tour.”

Gardot has recorded three major-label jazz albums to date; two of them have been nominated for Grammy awards.

Helping others with music

Gardot’s success with piano got Dr. Jermyn thinking. If music as treatment could change one patient’s life, could it help others as well? While not every patient would become an award-winning professional musician, many of them would likely see benefits, he thought. A few years back, Gardot and Dr. Jermyn talked about music medicine. She told him she was interested in helping expose others to music medicine. The NMI won a $100,000 grant from the Swedish Postcode Lottery to pursue music medicine. Gardot facilitated the win.

The institute used part of the money for equipment and instruments, such as drums and keyboards, and installed an acoustically sound music room in its Wellness Center. The space within the Wellness Center dedicated to music medicine was named Chateau Gardot. And in the fall of 2011, Dr. Jermyn recruited UMDNJ-SOM students to help create what would become the first student-run music medicine program housed in a medical school in the U.S., to his knowledge.

“I don’t think it’s any mystery to anybody that music makes everybody’s life better,” he says. “Music stimulates parts of our brain, such as our pleasure receptors. It’s why, when we watch movies, music is in the background. It makes us emotional. There are reasons people do these things, and it’s because of the power that music has. And we have to capture that in medicine.”

Andrew Isleib, OMS III, jumped at the chance to get involved. Isleib, who became the student director of UMDNJ-SOM’s music medicine program, says music was his first love. One of the first things the students did was begin leading monthly drum circles with patients from the NMI who had chronic pain or functional limitations, such as from strokes or accidents.

“We’ve come up with a few different exercises,” he says. “Call and response, different ways that we can encourage participation. Especially with people who have a limb limitation, we will encourage the use of both limbs. Part of the challenge is finding the right instrument for every patient.”

The goal, Isleib says, is to find an instrument that the patient can play in an enjoyable way but that will also push the patient to improve his or her capabilities.

Patients in the hour-long drum sessions gave Isleib and other students a lot of positive feedback.

“We’ve had pain patients who say that they didn’t feel any pain during the previous hour and that they hadn’t had an hour like that in years,” he says. “No added medications, just music.”

Fine-tuning the program

The institute is poised to do more extensive work in music medicine in the future. After more than a year of building up UMDNJ-SOM’s music medicine program, the NMI held a grand opening at Chateau Gardot in November 2012. The space is open to the public.

Isleib and his fellow students under Dr. Jermyn’s direction will also be conducting more formal music medicine studies. They’re currently looking into studying music meditation, which is guided meditation set to music composed by the program’s students.

“We’re going to look at the effect of music before and after painful injections,” Dr. Jermyn says, “to see if patients have a better response to an epidural or a nerve root block with music meditation.”

Dr. Jermyn and his students are also interested in studying how different types of music effect people.

“Is there a universal connection with music that everyone can understand?” he asks. “Or is it variable? Do you offer patients very sensitive music, or focus on the beat? Or is it a type of instrument?”

Students at Chateau Gardot also conduct free music medicine sessions with patients from the NMI, such as the monthly drum circle, Isleib says. They have also been learning about and experimenting with instruments that patients with limited mobility can use.

Isleib talks about sound beams, which a patient in a wheelchair can play by rolling closer to or further from the beam. The center also has a Kaossilator, which has a touchpad that a patient can use to make different notes with minimal movements.

“A patient who has the mobility of only one finger can move through all these notes just by shaking that finger,” Isleib says.

One of the most rewarding aspects of working with the center, Isleib says, is showing patients what’s possible.

“When I’m calling patients and saying, ‘I’d like you to participate in this,’ one of the things I hear all the time is, ‘There’s no way that I could play an instrument,’ ” he says.

“And the fun of it has been explaining to people that they can. Really anyone can participate. And if a patient is enjoying it, that’s a benefit right from the start. Hopefully, there are some medical benefits as well.”


  1. Good article. I have Parkinson’s. While there is abundant info. regarding music and assoc. movement, your article makes me at least consider some lessons. Have no musical background but like bluegrass and the banjo. Will keep you posted if I do anything with it.

  2. This was a really interesting story. I almost majored in music in college and know the power of music. It doesn’t surprise me that a college of osteopathic medicine was the innovator of this new therapy. Way to go UMDNJ-SOM!

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