A Balm in Gilead: What Music can do for African American Health.

(Dedicated to the newest Choir of the World: the Oakwood University Aeolians. I am so proud of my HBCU Choir and what you all have accomplished!)

During this past week, I got the fabulous news that my alma mater’s premier choir, the Oakwood University Aeolians, won both the title of Choir of the World and Choral Conductor of the World at the Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod. As a former member of the Aeolians and a daughter of a musician, I have experienced first hand the positive impact of music on the human experience. I have vivid memories from my time in the Aeolians of people thanking the choir with tears in their eyes for giving them the gift of music. It was not unusual for someone to even pull you aside to say that they were in a hopeless place before they came to one of our concerts and somehow our music encouraged them to fight another day.

A common topic discussed in bioethics is pain – how much pain is too much pain, how we should be managing pain, and how to alleviate pain. Another topic covered is cultural competency. Part of cultural competency is understanding the importance and impact of cultural elements on healing. The nature of bioethics is interdisciplinary, so it would make sense to mesh together cultural practices with pain management and healing. For the African American community, this comes to a head with music.

The African-American experience, music, and health have been intertwined from slavery to modern day. Vocal Music Therapy for Chronic Pain Management in Inner-City African Americans: A Mixed Methods Feasibility Study, explored this relationship. The article starts out by acknowledging the quantitative and qualitative aspects of the relationship African Americans have had with music and tying that to music therapy. The study was designed to evaluate physical functioning, self-efficacy, average pain coping, emotional functioning, perception of change in the patient’s condition, and other benefits. The quantitative results were not the most impactful – there were some improvements for physical pain and coping but they were not considered statistically significant. But the qualitative results were very impressive.

The study found that vocal music therapy actually aided with the subjects generally managing pain, emotional health, and stress. It also encouraged the subjects to incorporate self-care into their routine. The group and community aspects of creating music together also helped the participants feel an enhanced sense of meaning – even with those who had attended traditional group therapy before.  Subject members stated that they reencountered their personal strengths even though they were living in chronic pain. It even helped alleviate depression and reignite a desire to interact with others in some of the participants. This point was critical because of the positive effect of social support on chronic pain management in general.

Part of ethical care is meeting patients where they are. That includes respecting and acknowledging cultural perspectives. Though the impact of music in healing is not unique to African-Americans, the place music has had in the African-American community is very significant. Music was medicine before healthcare even reached these communities. It was the Advil, the local anesthetic, and the morphine. I’ve lived with forms of chronic pain and a large part of learning how to cope with it is facilitating mental fortitude – which was enforced by this study. Music is by no means a substitute for traditional means of pain management, but the dynamic still effective and worth noting. There is a negro spiritual called A Balm in Gilead and I’ve listed the lyrics here:

There is a balm in Gilead
To make the wounded whole
There is a balm in Gilead
To heal the sin-sick soul

Sometimes I feel discouraged
And think my work’s in vain
But then the Holy Spirit
Revives my soul again

Music has been a means of survival for African-Americans since the community’s origins. Gospel, jazz, the blues, and rap have all been used as avenues for expressing painful experiences and to convey a sense of community. So it would only be logical for those same strategies to be incorporated into a more culturally competent and intentional pain management plan. I would love to hear about your experiences with music and health in the comments below Don’t forget to share, like, and sign up for email notifications of new blog posts!

Humming to myself,

The Neighborhood Bioethicist



Balm in Gilead – Contemporary Gospel Version

The Aeolians of Oakwood University – Winning Performance at Llangollen International Music Eisteddfod



Bradt, Joke, Marisol Norris, Minjung Shim, Edward J. Gracely, and Patricia Gerrity. “Vocal Music Therapy for Chronic Pain Management in Inner-City African Americans: A Mixed Methods Feasibility Study.” Journal of Music Therapy 53, no. 2 (January 1, 2016): 178–206. doi:10.1093/jmt/thw004.
Communications, United Methodist. “Part of History, African-American Spirituals Still Heal.” The United Methodist Church. Accessed July 16, 2017. http://www.umc.org/resources/part-of-history-african-american-spirituals-still-heal.
“Cultural Competence | SAMHSA.” Accessed July 9, 2017. https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/applying-strategic-prevention/cultural-competence.
“EBSCOhost | 110745936 | The Healing Element of the Spirituals.” Accessed July 9, 2017. http://web.b.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/abstract?site=ehost&scope=site&jrnl=08886601&AN=110745936&h=ShY9SlcHqNeXyy1hE7joWT1QQNuRz3BIlblPtPlP0fPx3N0%2bxzKypqvKNNEBku0PojU649kRNb7SsKwUp%2fGMtg%3d%3d&crl=c&resultLocal=ErrCrlNoResults&resultNs=Ehost&crlhashurl=login.aspx%3fdirect%3dtrue%26profile%3dehost%26scope%3dsite%26authtype%3dcrawler%26jrnl%3d08886601%26AN%3d110745936.
Robinson, Tiearea J. “Therapeutic Techniques: The Healing Elements of the Spirituals.” M.A., California State University, Dominguez Hills, 2014. http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.bu.edu/docview/1539543685/abstract/1DC54E442AEA4311PQ/1.
“THERE IS A BALM IN GILEAD Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music.” Accessed July 16, 2017. https://www.negrospirituals.com/songs/there_is_a_blam_in_gilead.htm.

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