The Music of Heartbeats

By 
Katie Gibson
March 10, 2020

Music therapy alumnus Brian Schreck shared his unique approach to creating music with the heartbeats of patients with a terminal illness.  

Brian Schreck B.M. '02 talks about his experience creating recordings of his patients' heartbeats.
Image by Ben Pu

The human heart makes a distinctive two-beat sound, familiar to anyone who’s ever listened through a stethoscope or felt their own pounding heart. For music therapy alumnus Brian Schreck B.M. ’02, a person’s heartbeat is only the beginning. 

Based at the Norton Cancer Institute in Louisville, Kentucky, Schreck spends his days working with cancer patients and their families. In addition to playing musical instruments with and for them, Schreck often records the patients’ heartbeats, layering them with beats, guitar riffs, or other music to create recordings as unique as a fingerprint. At Berklee’s recent music therapy spring symposium, Songs of Life: Music Therapy Cardiography, Schreck shared his approach, along with video and audio recordings from several of his patients, in a keynote talk and several panel discussions.

So often I felt like, working with patients in ICU, we were doing music with them.

—Brian Schreck B.M. ’02

After earning his music therapy degree from Berklee, Schreck worked in several different intensive care units at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. He had heard from various sources, including fellow alumnus Casey Driessen, about recordings that included or were inspired by infant heartbeats, recorded during ultrasounds. Then Schreck saw a 2010 news segment about Tara and Todd Storch, who had lost their daughter Taylor to a skiing accident. The news story showed the Storches meeting with the woman who had received their daughter’s heart, and listening to its strong, steady beat through a stethoscope.

“So often I felt like, working with patients in ICU, we were doing music with them,” Schreck said. This method, he said, feels much more participatory: the patients contribute the heartbeat, and often they or their families choose the accompanying music. His work focuses on young hospice patients: babies, children, and teenagers receiving palliative care for terminal or incurable conditions. 

Schreck shared several recordings of heartbeats layered with different types of music, such as an original set of hip-hop lyrics (written and performed by the father of a baby with serious medical issues) and a wordless rendition of “Stand by Me” (performed by Schreck himself). Sometimes, he said, the music follows the grief process, as in the case of Dylan, a teenager who enjoyed his jam sessions with Schreck and their guitars. Schreck’s work with Dylan’s family came to include recordings of Dylan’s heartbeat and guitar playing, plus several songs that were important to his mother and stepfather.

Schreck admitted that his work seems “heavy,” and acknowledged the grief and pain that comes along with having a child in hospice care. But, he said, the work is really about “integrating hope into every day.” Through their work recording heartbeats, Schreck’s team has been able to build relationships with hundreds of families and sometimes advocate for better care at hospitals and outpatient centers.  

During a break in his presentation, Schreck encouraged his audience to get up and dance to the music he shared. “It’s why we make music, isn’t it?” he said with a smile. “To dance.”

Watch a trailer for a documentary that Schreck and Jeremy Frindel B.M. ’01 produced about his work:

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