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Music's healing power

Recent UofSC nursing graduate uses music to help people cope with loss

Sarah Louise Faulkner can always find the right music for the right situation — classical for studying, songs with an upbeat tempo for the gym, anything while riding in the car with the windows down. 

“I think that music just transcends the normalcy of life,” she says.

And a normal part of life is death. Right before arriving at the University of South Carolina, Faulkner lost two close friends. Music helped her cope with her grief.  

“I have always looked to music as that healing agent in my life. I could release my emotions and share it with other people,” she says. “I recognized that music is a powerful thing.”

Faulkner decided it would be powerful to merge her passion for music with the compassion that led her to major in nursing. It was a combination of disciplines that sounded perfect to her adviser, music professor Phillip Bush.

“If you’re studying music, you are constantly being challenged to tap into emotional resources within yourself, to draw upon the full range of emotion and feeling,” Bush says. “Being sensitive to those things within yourself can only help you become attuned and sensitive to what others are going through.”



The empathy of being a nurse gave Faulkner an idea for her South Carolina Honors College thesis. She interviewed 15 young adults — all of whom had lost a close family member or friend — and asked how music helped with their grief.

Her findings showed music allowed people to think of a positive memory of their lost loved one. All of the study subjects found it extremely therapeutic that — at any point — they could listen to a song and it would bring back memories of a happier time. 

“We often hear that music can provide solace in times of grief, but it’s an interesting question as to why it does so. A lot of the music that we work on as classical musicians is 50, 100, 300 years old or more. Hearing it or working with that music reminds us that, yes, life is fleeting and ephemeral, but the creative spirit can communicate across the centuries, connecting those who have left with those who are here now. In times of grief, that can be a kind of comfort,” Bush says.

In the end, Faulkner found she had enough material for a song. “I also wanted to know, as a musician, if I were to write music to help other people — what would that music need to look like?” she says.



As a followup, she plans to send a recording of the song “Behind the Clouds” to the study participants to see if the music and lyrics accurately depict their experience.  

By conducting this research, Faulkner knows she wants to be a nurse who is considered a patient advocate.

“The University of South Carolina provided to me as a student this incredibly multidynamic undergraduate experience and showed me that nursing has so many implications and room for nonmedical therapy,” she says. “To me, a good nurse means that I have to pay attention to my patient’s physical needs, but I also need to make sure that they have their emotional, social, psychosocial, financial, spiritual — all of those needs need to be met as well.”


Images by Kim Truett; video by Joshua Burrack