Other common name(s): none
Scientific/medical name(s): none
Specially trained health care professionals use music therapy to promote healing and enhance quality of life for their patients. Music therapy may be used to encourage emotional expression, promote social interaction, relieve symptoms, and other treatment goals. Music therapists may use active or passive methods with patients, depending on the individual patient’s needs and abilities.
There is some evidence that, when used with conventional treatment, music therapy can help reduce pain and relieve chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting. It may also relieve stress, improve coping and mood, and provide an overall sense of well-being. Some studies have found that music therapy can lower heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing rate.
How is it promoted for use?
Music therapists work with a variety of physical, emotional, and psychological symptoms. Music therapy is often used in cancer treatment to help reduce pain, anxiety, and depression, as well as nausea caused by chemotherapy. Some people believe music therapy may be a beneficial addition to the health care of children with cancer by promoting social interaction and cooperation.
There are no claims music therapy can cure cancer or other diseases, but medical experts do believe it can reduce some symptoms, aid healing, improve physical movement, and enrich a patient’s quality of life.
What does it involve?
Music therapists design music sessions for individuals and groups based on their needs and treatment goals. Some aspects of music therapy include making music, listening to music, writing songs, and talking about lyrics. Music therapy may also involve imagery and learning through music. Music therapists work in hospitals, cancer centers, hospices, at home, or anywhere people can benefit from its calming or stimulating effects. The patient does not need to have any musical ability to benefit from music therapy.
A related practice called music thanatology is sometimes used at the end of a patient’s life to ease the person’s passing. It is practiced in homes, hospices, or nursing homes.
What is the history behind it?
Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers believed that music could heal both the body and the soul. Native Americans and many other indigenous peoples have used singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals for millennia. The more formal approach to music therapy began in World War II, when U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals began to use music to help treat soldiers suffering from “shell shock”. In 1944, Michigan State University established the first music therapy degree program in the world.
Today, more than 70 colleges and universities have degree programs that are approved by the American Music Therapy Association. Music therapists must have at least a bachelor’s degree, 1,200 hours of clinical training, and one or more internships before they can be certified. There are thousands of professional music therapists working in health care settings in the United States today. They serve as part of cancer-management teams in many hospitals and cancer centers, helping to plan and evaluate treatment. Some music therapy services are covered by health insurance.
What is the evidence?
Scientific studies have shown the value of music therapy on the body, mind, and spirit of children and adults. Researchers have found that music therapy, when used with anti-nausea drugs for patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy, can help ease nausea and vomiting. A number of clinical trials have shown the benefit of music therapy for short-term pain, including pain from cancer. Some studies have suggested that music may help decrease the overall intensity of the patient’s experience of pain when used with pain-relieving drugs. Music therapy can also result in a decreased need for pain medicine in some patients, although studies on this topic have shown mixed results.
One study in hospice patients found that music therapy improved comfort, relaxation, and pain control. Another study found that quality of life improved in cancer patients who received music therapy, even as it declined in those who did not. No differences were seen in survival between the 2 groups.
A 2006 clinical trial looked at the effects of music during the course of several weeks of radiation treatments. The researchers found that while emotional distress (such as anxiety) seemed to be helped at the beginning of treatment, the patients reported that this effect gradually decreased. Music did not appear to help such symptoms as pain, fatigue, and depression over the long term.
Other clinical trials have revealed a reduction in heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, insomnia, and depression with music. Some studies of people with cancer found improvements in anxiety but some others did not. No one knows all the ways music can benefit the body, but studies have shown that music can affect brain waves, brain circulation, neurotransmitters, and stress hormones. These effects are usually seen during and shortly after the music therapy.
A 2013 review looked at past studies of music on anxiety in adult cancer patients. The researchers were able to combine 4 studies and analyze the data as a single group, but they didn’t find a significant difference in anxiety among those cancer patients who had music interventions and those who didn’t.
Clinical trials that involve just listening to music (without a music therapist) have often shown no benefit on anxiety, although one study that let patients to choose their own music showed improved anxiety levels during surgical procedures. A 2006 review of studies looked at the effect of music on all types of pain and found a wide variation in its effects. The study authors observed that the best effects were on short-term pain after surgery.
It is important to know that not all studies of music and music interventions involve music therapists, who assess the patient’s needs, circumstances, and preferences, as well as the different effects of certain types of music. Simply playing music to patients may be helpful in some cases, but it’s not the same as music therapy. This may account for some differences in clinical trial results that use music interventions.
Are there any possible problems or complications?
In general, music therapy done under the care of a professionally trained therapist has a helpful effect and is considered safe when used with standard treatment. Musical intervention by untrained people can be ineffective or can even cause increased stress and discomfort.
Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.
To learn more
More information from your American Cancer Society
The following information on complementary and alternative therapies may also be helpful to you. These materials may be found on our website (www.cancer.org) or ordered from our toll-free number (1-800-ACS-2345).
The ACS Operational Statement on Complementary and Alternative Methods of Cancer Management
American Music Therapy Association. Frequently Asked Questions. Accessed at http://www.musictherapy.org/faq/#267 on May 1, 2014.
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Note: This information may not cover all possible claims, uses, actions, precautions, side effects or interactions. It is not intended as medical advice, and should not be relied upon as a substitute for consultation with your doctor, who is familiar with your medical situation.
Last Revised: 01/13/2015