Florence Nightingale and Music in Healthcare

How are Florence Nightingale and Music in Healthcare related? We tell you all about it in today’s blog post! 


First, a bit of background information

Florence Nightingale is best known for her tremendous influence on the development of nursing. Born in 1820, she was an English social reformer, statistician and the founder of modern nursing. Her legacy includes:

  • Laying the foundation of professional nursing
  • Establishing the nursing school at St. Thomas’ Hospital in London
  • The Nightingale Pledge – a modified version of the Hippocratic Oath, named in honor of Florence Nightingale
  • The Florence Nightingale Medal – the highest international distinction a nurse can achieve
  • International Nurses Day is celebrated on her birthday
  • Social reforms, such as improving healthcare for all sections of British society, advocating better hunger relief in India, helping to abolish prostitution laws that were harsh for women, and expanding the acceptable forms of female participation in the workforce.


Notes on Nursing and Music in Healthcare

In Notes on Nursing: What It Is And What It Is Not1, Florence Nightingale’s seminal book, she wrote the following:


The effect of music upon the sick has been scarcely at all noticed. In fact, its expensiveness, as it is now, makes any general application of it quite out of the question. I will only remark here, that wind instruments, including the human voice, and stringed instruments, capable of continuous sound, have generally a beneficent effect–while the piano-forte, with such instruments as have no continuity of sound, has just the reverse. The finest piano-forte playing will damage the sick, while an air, like “Home, sweet home,” or “Assisa a piè d’un salice,” on the most ordinary grinding organ, will sensibly soothe them–and this quite independent of association. (Florence Nightingale, 1898: Notes on Nursing)


It is quite telling that Nightingale was so observant as to notice that “the effect of music upon the sick has been scarcely at all noticed.” This gives us an idea about the state and lack of music in healthcare settings at the time. 

It is also interesting that she has a strong opinion on the type of instruments that would have “a beneficent effect” on patients. As far as I know, there is no research, from music therapy or related fields, that backs up this statement. In fact, music therapists often use either the piano or the guitar, both of which “have no continuity of sound” and which Nightingale discouraged. Now we know from music therapy research that in fact, the preferred music from the patient is often the preferred option, and it can be accompanied by a piano or guitar. 

There are many factors that affect whether a music-based intervention achieves a clinical goal. Nightingale was ahead of her time in noticing that even characteristics like timbre have an effect. At Sam’s Fans, we believe that having a skilled music therapist is perhaps the number one factor in ensuring music is properly in healthcare.


How did Florence Nightingale Reach Her Conclusions?

Nightingale only wrote one paragraph (mentioned above) about music in Notes on Nursing. She did not explain how she reached her conclusions. Did she experience musicians playing for patients where she was working? Did she ever sing to her patients? Perhaps upon further investigation, some of these questions could be answered. Yet, it is most likely we will not discover a full picture of her thoughts on the topic.

As reported elsewhere in our blog, “in 1891 the Guild of St. Cecilia used music with a large number of patients in London hospitals […] Frederick Harford report[ed] how the choir from the Guild (comprising of three singers, two violins, and a harp) went to different hospitals to play for the patients.” One cannot help but wonder if Nightingale ever encountered the Guild and what she thought of their services.

Nightingale did a lot to improve professional nursing practices. We may never know what else she thought about music in the treatment of patients. Yet, we know that her philosophy towards nursing was centered on the best care for patients. We know today that this often includes music and other creative arts therapies. 



Now you know a bit more about how the topics of Florence Nightingale and music in healthcare are related. We hope you found this post valuable!





L. Samuel Gracida

L. Samuel Gracida

Samuel is Sam's Fans Operating Director and our primary blogger!

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