Hand to Hold's Official Blog: Written by Parents for Parents

The Effect of Music and Serendipity

Music is for the NICU and Beyond

We never know when something random will become something important to know. This is my favorite example. When I was in eighth grade in 1988, I had to compete in Pennsylvania Junior Academy of Science (PJAS). I struggled to weave something I cared about into a science project. I was going to be a helper, an artist and musician. When would I ever need science? My science teacher, Mrs. Libauch, was determined to prove that science is important to everyone. She helped me brainstorm something of interest that I could test: music and writing. She accepted my proposal: The Effect of Music on Heart Rate and Academic Performance. Back then, pre-Internet, it was not common knowledge that beats per minute had any relationship to heart rate. There was little research to pull from. Despite many flaws, my study showed a correlation between fast tempo, increased heart rate, and better academic performance on math exams. After my study was complete, I gave it little thought. In college, it served as a foundation for conducting research and using the scientific method for art and music therapy. The PJAS study was my very small, drop-in-the-bucket scientific contribution.

Fast-forward 19 years later. I was in the NICU with a fragile 24 week micro-preemie daughter, trying to convince neonatologists that music may help her heart rate, breath rate, and mechanical ventilator sync up. They’d labeled her as “failure to thrive” and said she was fighting the vent to the point of worsening Intraventricular Hemorrhages (IVH) bleeds in her brain (a common problem for preemies).

I pointed out that they have a hospital music therapist. Nobody laid claim to knowing about this, but said I was welcome to try anything I wanted. I tried reiki. I had people praying. I read and talked to her about the world outside of the NICU. The doctors did not think she was going to survive much longer. They recommended that I sign Do Not Resuscitate papers after her second flatline. Her dad ripped up the papers, threw them away, and we pressed on.

Leaving the NICU that day, I felt dejected. I walked slowly, with my head down. I saw a woman’s interesting shoes at the elevator, and a guitar on her back. I exclaimed, “Are you a music therapist?!” She looked at me funny and said, “Yes, how did you know?” I gushed, “Well, you’re walking around a hospital wearing a guitar. I’m an art therapist, so I can spot my kind.”

She walked back into the NICU with me, played her guitar and sang for my daughter. I don’t know if it was the science of it all that made the brain bleeds stop, or the music. But that music therapist restored my hope. I felt that I was on the right track.

In between NICU visits, I carefully selected music with various beats per minute. At the NICU, her dad and I played disc jockey: soulful jazz and upbeat Classical arias to play when they wanted her awake & alert. Soothing, slow lullabies from around the world or Rockabye Baby for rest. I hoped music would reach the deepest parts of healing, at the soul and cellular level. My daughter’s brain bleeds resolved, and she began to show improvement. She came home with a tracheostomy, ventilator, and oxygen.

Over the course of 4 years of home nursing, we continued to test this theory I had long ago, that music effects heart rate and cognitive performance. What I found is that it also effects respiratory rate. We had a pulseox machine to read heart rate, oxygen saturation and a vent that measured respiratory rates. I had very scientific-minded people in our home, who would not simply trust my intuition. I had an ex-army nurse who believed me and introduced opera music. We found pieces of music most effective in bringing my daughter out of respiratory distress, music that helped with transitions, and sleep.

During hospital stays, my daughter needed less pain and sedative medications when familiar music was playing. Some nurses claimed that she would not be able to hear in a medically induced coma, yet they noticed her sats changed when the music stopped or started again. Her expression changed from calm to furrowed brow when she didn’t like something. They were fascinated.

Musicians and filmmakers understand how powerful sound and vibration is, and how it touches the emotions. The entertainment industry gets it. With the exception of music therapists, what we under-value in society is music and art’s place in medicine.

Over the years, my daughter weaned off of oxygen, the ventilator, and survived a difficult airway reconstruction that allowed her freedom from the tubes and machines. Yet her vocal chords were still paralyzed. ENT specialists stated that she may never speak, and if she did, her voice would be a raspy whisper. I put research and music to the test to seek innovative treatment. She began to talk and hear after Auditory Integration Therapy, a music listening therapy created by an audiologist in an effort to help his mom, an opera singer. They found that the system was successful for a wide range of hearing and speech issues.

After all of these years, I finally see that I did need both art and science in my life. I just didn’t know this at the time I was learning it. I’d like to congratulate Mrs. Libauch for being right and thank her for teaching me the scientific process, because it’s something that has been relevant in my life. It is something that I will teach my child, who is now 9 years old and thriving past all medical expectations. I urge every NICU parent to make connections with past learning. You learned it for a reason, and one day that knowledge will help you solve problems. Solutions often come from desperate problem-solving. Solutions come from trial and error, creative thinking, and applying what we know and love. Science and serendipity taught me that.

Cheryl Silinskas About Cheryl Silinskas

Cheryl Silinskas (PA), is also known as Earlie Girlie's Mom, a 24-week, 816 gram (1 lb. 8oz) micropreemie. Despite having a complicated medical profile, Earlie Girlie has grown into a happy child who inspires people every day. In the NICU, I often thought, “I'm an art therapist, what do I know about physical medicine and keeping a tiny person alive with all of this equipment?” As my daughter blinked at me, and the machines beeped at me, I was determined to figure it out, starting with what I knew best – art, music, storytelling and healing.
As Vice President and Art Facilitator of Art Expression Inc, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, I enjoy my lifelong dream of being an art-helper. Follow my blog, Early Girlie Homeschool. Connect with Cheryl on Facebook at Micro Preemie Support Network, CP Mommies, Daddies, Grandparents and Caregivers, or Tracheostomy.


  1. What a fantastic article! We were blessed to have the Music Therapy Interns from FSU at our hospital. Our daughter was intubated for so long she could not feed. The therapists had an amazing device attached to a pacifier that could sense when she tried to suck on it. When she sucked, soft music would play; when she stopped the music stopped. She quickly learned at just 4 weeks old that she could hear music when she sucked the pacifier. This lead to her learning to use a bottle. We would sing to her as she drank, if she stopped drinking, we stopped singing. Music therapy changed her life and our life forever. She’s now a happy, healthy 22month old! xoxox

    • Cheryl Silinskas says:

      Thank you so much for reading, and for sharing your findings! That is truly amazing that someone came up with a cause and effect with music to help babies learn a motor skill. Music is something that becomes a life-long love. It speaks to our senses and souls like nothing else. I hope your family continues to sing and listen together!

  2. This was such a nice article to read and such fascinating information. I’m not particularly musical (do NOT ask me to sing!) but I love music and tend to notice beats, rhythms, and instruments in song. I am constantly playing music in my house, not to mention singing. My kids love music as well.
    When my twins came home from the NICU, we had music playing for them all the time. I loved how calm it made them. When my son was hospitalized with RSV at 10 months old, he was miserable and nothing could calm him down, until I brought a mini-cd player in with a cd of really relaxing music. That was the only thing that worked. Even when I wasn’t there, the nurses turned it on for him when they were treating him with the nebulizer, because otherwise they couldn’t get through it. Today, my twins have music sessions in their special-ed integrated preschool, and the teacher can’t get over how much they light up when it starts. I always believed that music can connect with us and affect us in ways we can’t even see (I gave a speech to that effect in Public Speaking one year back in high school), but it was great to read a scientific aspect of that as well – I’m a very scientific person.

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences with your twins as well! Early childhood programs have it right – they use music to teach just about everything. I believe that music provides the soundtrack for our lives. Music cues our emotions, and memories. I discovered through my child that music can reduce pain and anxiety. My intent is to show more evidence that music can be utilized in a hospital setting, as well as at home. Art and music research are especially difficult to apply traditional science measures. Case studies have been the way to go in both art therapy and music therapy. So each time a story is told, it becomes more evident that something is working, something is changing or happening. I’m in a place to look back and see evidence of many ways music has impacted my child, who is 10 years old. But back in the NICU, it was all done with a hunch, with blind hope that something, anything would save her and minimize pain. It is profound that music effects our pain levels, emotions, anxiety, and inspires us to move and learn. Science is not so dismissive of the arts anymore, and that is exciting. I hope people keep telling their stories of what music has meant to them!


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