Of music and medicine

The arts give us a window into the human condition

Letter from the dean

Sometimes my daughter and I engage each other in a thought experiment: What if you could listen to composers from only one half of the alphabet? Would you choose A to L or M to Z?

With the former, you get Bach and Beethoven. Not to mention Bartok, Brahms and Debussy. But with the latter, you get Mahler, Mozart, Schubert, Stravinsky, Verdi and Wagner. The game usually ends predictably: An impossible choice!

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. (Glenn Matsumura photo)
Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the Stanford School of Medicine. (Photo by Glenn Matsumura)

It’s hard to imagine a world without the transcendent beauty of a Bach cantata or a Mozart concerto. When I listen to music, especially during a performance at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, I am often reminded of the reason why: Music has a way of speaking to us and for us, conveying thoughts and emotions when words fall short. Music also brings us together, allowing us to share experiences across time and space.

Music has been an important part of my life since I was a child and began learning to play the cello. My musical training taught me valuable lessons about creativity — as Einstein said, artistic creativity is not so different from scientific creativity — and the power of teamwork. It’s still amazing to hear in a symphony how many separate notes and individual instruments can come together to create a whole that is so much more than the sum of the parts.

Now, as dean, I have found that my background in music — and my deep appreciation for the arts and humanities — is more important than ever. Stanford Medicine’s vision of the future of health care allows us, for the first time, to imagine a world without disease, fueled by astonishing scientific breakthroughs and incredible advances in technology. It’s an inspiring vision, and yet while we all want to live a long and healthy life, we also yearn to live a good and meaningful life. Disciplines like philosophy and poetry can help us get there.

In the arts and the humanities, we find a unique window into both ourselves and the human condition. As medical research and technology transform our lives, we will continue to attend concerts, visit art galleries and read literature to help us explore age-old questions about who we are, why we’re here and what it all means. Through science, we may be able to understand the fundamental workings of the human body and mind, but we still need to look beyond science to help make sense of things like suffering, love, hate and hope.

And within the practice of medicine, we physicians must bring the arts and humanities to bear — to ensure that high-tech medical treatment is paired with high-touch health care. In this way, we can approach each patient with empathy and compassion — with the understanding that a disease is not the same as the experience of illness, and that a patient is more than an ill person.

Keep reading to learn about some of the ways that Stanford Medicine is bringing this humanistic medicine to our patients and joining the arts and the sciences to create the future of health care. May it be music to your ears.

Sincerely, Lloyd Minor, MD
Carl and Elizabeth Naumann Dean of the School of Medicine