Scales to Scalpels: Doctors Who Practice the Healing Arts of Music and Medicine

Wong, Lisa

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

  • Date of entry: Nov-01-2020


This is a quick and personal history of the Longwood Symphony Orchestra (LSO), a group of Boston area musicians who, in their working lives, are medical personnel. The first of its kind, there are now several such orchestras across the US and scattered throughout the world, notably in Europe. Lisa Wong, a pediatrician and violinist, tells her own history of medicine and music, including her involvement with the Longwood Symphony Orchestra over some 28 years. Other stories of individual doctor/musicians are threaded throughout the book, giving us a personal look at their interdisciplinary enterprise. While their medical specialties, ages, and backgrounds vary widely, while playing in the orchestra and, various professional ranks aside, they accept the direction of the conductor. While Wong mentions antecedents of medicine and music in ancient times, she chooses Dr. Albert Schweitzer as a patron saint for the LSO.

For Wong and her fellow doctors, there are links between music and healing. Music helps keep doctors (and patients) healthy by calming the heartbeat, relaxing muscles, and lifting the mind (p. 86). Music therapy (the psychotherapeutic use of music) and music medicine (the more general uses of music, often in medical settings) can assist in patient care. For example, a dementia patient named Ruth reawakened upon hearing music. Some patients choose to listen to music in the final days of their lives (p. 184).      

For many doctors, music was an early pursuit. Neurological studies suggest that musical training helps develop “structural brain plasticity” that may show benefits in education and training. By contrast, however, sometimes musicians (doctors or not) develop overuse injuries and need specific physical therapy.           

Music has applications in mental health, hospitals in general, and community partners. The LSO has partnered with some 40 nonprofits in the Boston area. In one example, they helped grow the Asian bone marrow registry from 3,000 to 11,000 people (p. 225). An LSO concert raised $30,000 for the Mattapan Community Health Center in South Boston.  

Lisa Wong was president of the organization for 20 years. She writes, “Music goes a long way to heal entire communities. Social justice and social welfare are important determinants of health. Programs that look beyond the music are truly ‘Healing the Community through Music’” (p. 249). 


This is a personal and sympathetic portrait of a medical orchestra, a type of organization that may be unfamiliar to many readers. Because I sing in the Choral Society of Durham, I recently learned of my local Duke Medical Orchestra, already in existence for 10 years. My CSD and the DMO joined forces to present the challenging “Itaipu” by Philip Glass in 2019 and Eric Whitacre’s “Deep Field” the next year with interstellar imagery on handheld phones of performers and audience members.             

Since publication of this book in 2012, there have been further developments in medical or health humanities including the founding of the Health Humanities Consortium in the US in 2015. While much of medicine has historically focused on serious disease and injury, a wider view of health, including resources of the arts, may improve healthcare for patients and all caregivers, including doctors, nurses, all support staff, and family members.            


A quick Web search finds medical orchestras at Yale, Northwestern, Texas Medical Center, and in Detroit. A PBS News report says there are now 20 such orchestras in existence. There is even a World Doctors Orchestra that travels to perform together in specific and changing locations and a Virtual Medical Orchestra that combines by computer sound and images of music from far-flung players. 

Eight pages of photos show us personnel at work and leaders of the organization.


Pegasus Books

Place Published

New York



Page Count