DocsVox – Medics Turn To Music


The late neurologist Oliver Sacks described a patient with Alzheimer’s who had little recollection of his life, but who remembered the baritone part to almost every song he had ever sung. “Music,” said Sacks, “was one of the only things that kept him grounded…”

For many who were immersed in music during school years, entry into demanding medical studies meant that musical activities were reluctantly reduced and even surrendered altogether during years of career building. Yet, the many benefits and pleasures of collegiate music making are well-recognised and doctors in particular, seemingly have a high level of engagement with music. Professor Desmond O’Neill of the Trinity Centre for Health Sciences in Dublin writes of the “richness of cultural engagement of medical students, their broad range of cultural interests and their ability to contribute to research and scholarship in the medical humanities.”

This is a view shared by Sydney University’s Emeritus Professor Michael Field, who has studied and taught the range of connections between medicine and music – not just as therapy but as a factor in the health of doctors. “The role of music both in relaxation and professional bonding is important, though evidence is hard to come by. However, there is no doubt about the benefit to doctors of participating in music as a collegiate activity. As a gathering around a common interest which is not professional but recreational, it seems to give a great deal of satisfaction.”

The Australian Doctors Orchestra has celebrated 25 years of music making and the NSW Doctors Orchestra founded in 2004 performs several times a year. Conspicuous by its absence is a doctors choir. Now there are moves to form a chorus of doctors – DocsVox – NSW Doctors Choir to perform with a doctors orchestra early in 2019. Professor Field points to the benefits of choral singing to social ties, and to personal health as a physiological stimulus to the lungs, as exercise for the brain and enhancement of memory. “It is postulated that endorphins are released and cortisol reduced, so all of these things would support a feeling of well-being when one sings” he adds.

Recently, more than a hundred potential singers from students to retirees have expressed an interest in joining DocsVox. One of these is Dr Liane Papantoniou, a graduate of Sydney University’s double degree in music and medicine. An intern at the Royal North Shore Hospital, Liane sings with the Sydney Chamber Choir. Unsure of whether to pursue her passion for music or for science on leaving school, Liane found the double degree offered by Sydney University “the best of both worlds.”

Liane perceives a great deal in common between being a musician and a clinician. “They both require hard work, focus and dedication; they’re both a process where the performer starts with a piece of music and the doctor starts with a patient. You have to listen carefully; you need empathy and patience. If you’re slightly off pitch you have to make your own adjustment in the same way that a doctor tweaks medication or tries something different to get the best result for that patient.”

Dr Nick Barry, JMO at Nepean Hospital who nominates Mozart’s Requiem as his favourite piece of music started singing whilst at prep school and continued through high school. Once at University, he found a slightly different outlet, becoming involved in theatrical productions. He wrote, directed and sang in Stayin’ Alive in the 2014 Med Revue. “It was great fun, cathartic and relaxing and a creative outlet for me. But after 2015 I haven’t really been part of anything musical due to a lack of time. I have missed it.”

Professor Fran Boyle AM, has also been singing since childhood. A PhD in Oncology from Sydney University, she has been an avid participant in church choirs and musicals. One of those rare women who sings tenor, she now sings with two Sydney choirs. “I sang soprano as a child and gradually slid. If I have plenty of red wine I might even manage singing baritone on Sunday morning!”

She points to the importance of team work in both choral singing and Oncology.  “We work in a multi-disciplinary setting. We have to blend, so that if you were listening, you would hear a whole sound. Each member of the team might say things in a different way, but they add to make the patient feel safe. There is not a jarring clash of voices and different perspectives. You want to keep that difference but make it blend and that’s really what a choir is all about – it’s not about having the greatest solo voice, it’s about having people who can fit in and work together.”

Professor Boyle concludes “Wednesday night practice and Sunday morning singing have been for 20 years, my therapy group. It gives me something to look forward to in the middle of the week and helps me get through my long clinic on a Wednesday and that is very helpful for a doctor.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©

To register your interest in singing with DocsVox, please visit




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