How Music Can Literally Heal the Heart

In a maverick method, nephrologist Michael Field taught medical students to decipher different heart murmurs through their stethoscopes, trills, grace notes, and decrescendos to describe the distinctive sounds of heart valves snapping closed, and blood ebbing through leaky valves in plumbing disorders of the heart.

Separately, in music based on electrocardiographic (ECG) traces of heart rhythm disorders, one of us—musician-mathematician Elaine Chew—used music notation to capture the signature rhythms of electrical anomalies of the heart. Collaged from extant music fragments matching the heartbeats, Brubeck’s Blue Rondo à la Turk provided the 2:4:3 rhythmic tattoo of ventricular early beats, Piazzolla’s Le Grand Tango remixed produced the irregular rhythms of atrial fibrillation. Little Etudes for piano, with pedagogical descriptions by cardiologist Pier Lambiase, provided a layperson’s introduction to electrical aberrations of the heart.

The reason these heart-music mappings work is because abnormal heart rhythms tend to form simple inter-beat-interval ratios. In fact, the distinctive rhythms in Beethoven’s music so closely resemble those of heart rhythm disorders that cardiologists have speculated that they may be transcriptions of Beethoven’s possible arrhythmia, his interoceptive awareness of his own heartbeat enhanced by his deafness.

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