Health Literacy

Using Music and Song as Tools of Health Communication

By Helen Osborne, M.Ed., OTR/L
President of Health Literacy Consulting
On Call Magazine, March 24, 2008

Some days, his tools are a stethoscope and prescription pad. Other days, they include a microphone and guitar. But whichever tool he is using, Mache Seibel, MD, is actively educating people about health and wellness. Seibel, aka “Doc Rock,” is a practicing physician and professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also a composer and performer who records music with health messages as part of his business, HealthRock.

Seibel’s had a life-long interest in music. As a youngster, he played in rock and roll bands. During medical training, he looked for opportunities to incorporate music into his work, and although he never uses song in a patient exam, Seibel writes about treatment and care in such ditties as “PID Blues” (about pelvic inflammatory disease) and “Funky Labor.” He has even used music to teach colleagues about medical procedures. For example, the lyrics of his song “TVH for Three” (based on “Tea for Two”) outline the procedure for a vaginal hysterectomy. Some of Seibel’s colleagues say they still recall the lyrics “clamp, cut, tie, hold” when they perform this surgery.

Music and healing: A rich tradition

As Doc Rock, Seibel entertains audiences of all ages with songs that convey positive health messages. While he initially addressed broad-based health issues such as obesity and smoking cessation in his music, Seibel now focuses on the everyday health needs of young children. His playlist includes songs as varied as “Don’t Be Afraid of Squash,” “Taking a Bath,” and “Lice in My Hair.”

Seibel is not the first person to merge medicine and music. He says that music has been used in conjunction with medical care throughout history and across cultures. The Greek god Apollo oversaw the combined domains of music and health. The rabbi and physician Maimonides prescribed music for health and for healing souls. And Native American shamans used music in delivering incantations and treatments.

Seibel says songs are being used today to educate people in the West African country of Benin about health behavior, in Mexico for prenatal care, and in Bolivia to teach how boiling water and washing hands can help prevent cholera. While music may not be as widely used in the United States, Seibel says there are ways it could be. Here are some of his suggestions for musical and nonmusical clinicians alike.

Use music to reduce fear. People of all ages are often fearful of medical appointments. Children may be afraid of getting shots while adults can be concerned about physical pain, emotional pain, or embarrassment. Seibel says that soothing music can help, whether it is played in the reception area or offered to patients on an individual basis during treatment, such as during an MRI. Music not only provides distraction and masks mechanical sounds, it also helps patients relax.

Use music (you can either select or create it) to frame health information. Seibel likens the songs he writes to short musical “jingles” one might hear on the radio. He says they are effective not just because of the lyrics, but because of the emphasis given the message through rhyme, rhythm, and melodies. In addition, songs can be adapted to the languages that people speak and include musical styles that are familiar to a particular audience.

Use music for positive messaging. Seibel is concerned about the widespread use of explicit language and frequent references to violence and sex in contemporary music, especially in music aimed at young people. Knowing the power of song, Seibel does what he can to counter this with music that bears positive health messages. His intent is to help people accept who they are, despite limitations. One of Seibel’s most frequently requested children’s songs is “Best at Being Me,” the first two verses of which are:

I may not run the fastest

I may not be that tall

I may not jump the highest

Not best at playing ball

I may not be the strongest

But I don’t have to be

‘Cause one thing that I’m best at

I’m absolutely, positively best at being me.”

Use songs to trigger healthy behaviors. Seibel likens music to an “ear worm” in that it can provide an auditory cue for certain behaviors. Similar to how the Army wakes soldiers up each morning with “Reveille,” Seibel sings to young children about daily health habits such as brushing teeth and taking a bath. He sees opportunities to do the same with adults with musical reminders about such things as good hand washing.

Seibel’s songs can be uploaded to personal MP3 players or cell phones, or used as computer-based or PDA reminders. This is already being done in the clinic where Seibel works. Each time a clinician logs on or off the computer, there is a pop-up song message reminding the user to “wash your hands.”

Use care when selecting songs. Seibel doesn’t see any downside to using music in medicine. “After all,” he says with a grin, “with music there is no ingesting or side effects.” But Seibel does caution that music, like print materials, must be chosen well. This includes making sure that songs are respectful, accurate, and appropriate for each audience. “People want to feel informed and empowered, not talked down to or preached at,” he says.

I know firsthand that Seibel adheres to this standard. In fact, I am listening to his CD, HealthRock Lullabies for Kids of All Ages, while writing this article. Although he composed this song cycle to address sleep-related problems, I find the music both soothing and relaxing. And I’m not the only one singing his praises. Seibel’s disc was recently honored with  an iParenting Media Award, given to the highest-quality consumer products by a diverse panel of childcare experts.

Ways to learn more:

Mache Seibel, MD, is a practicing physician, musician, and performer. You can contact him by email at

Helen Osborne, MEd, OTR/L, is president of Health Literacy Consulting. Her column appeared regularly in On Call. You can contact her by e-mail at

Article reprinted with permission from On Call magazine and published by a division of Boston Globe Media.