Thanks to the growing number of hospital music therapy programs, the prognosis for some chronically ill patients is going from bad to verse, and that's a good thing.

Researchers with Mount Sinai Beth Israel in New York City have found that music therapy — such as singing and playing wind instruments — helps to lower depression symptoms and improves breathing better than traditional treatment alone does for patients with chronic breathing conditions.

The findings, which appeared in the journal Pulmonary Medicine, were no surprise to Jonathan Raskin, medical director of Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s Alice Lawrence Center for Health and Rehabilitation. Raskin, a co-author of the study, has used music therapy since the early 1990s. "We see the impact of music therapy all the time," he says.

Patients in the study attended six weekly 45-minute music therapy sessions that included singing, playing wind instruments and "music visualization," which involved inhaling and exhaling to the tempo and rhythm of music.

"People have fun, and the group takes on a life of its own," Raskin says. The importance of the "fun" part can't be dismissed, Raskin notes. The study cites estimates that 25 percent of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease have depression, which Raskin says comes from isolation. People with COPD just can't keep up with their peers, so they withdraw. Music and other alternative forms of therapy can counteract that.

The use of music therapy is part of a movement in chronic care that is shifting its focus beyond the traditional assessments of diagnoses and morbidity and mortality rates toward preserving and enhancing people’s quality of life, according to another study co-author, Joanne Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine, also housed at Mount Sinai Beth Israel.

Other hospitals have adopted music in breathing-related therapy. Harmonica playing, for example, is part of rehab programs at Advocate Christ Medical Center, Oak Lawn, Ill.; El Camino Hospital, Mountain View, Calif.; and the University of Colorado Hospital, Aurora.

"I hope that, as people consider disease-management programs, they begin to evolve their thinking to include these modalities," Raskin says. "I think the seeds of this will grow."