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From OncoLog, January 2013, Vol. 58, No. 1

Music Therapy
Music therapists help cancer patients manage stress and side effects

Graphic: House CallListening to music affects people’s emotions. But did you know that music can have health benefits as well? Health care professionals called music therapists harness the power of music to improve healing and enhance quality of life for patients with cancer or other serious illnesses.

Benefits of music therapy

Music therapy helps patients manage stress and pain and improve their quality of life. For children with cancer, music therapy can encourage social interaction and cooperation. Music therapy can help adult patients to express their feelings; it has also been shown to improve memory and even promote physical rehabilitation.

Clinical studies have shown that music therapy has physical effects: it can reduce high blood pressure, rapid heartbeat, depression, anxiety, and insomnia. No one knows yet all the ways that music benefits the body, but studies have shown that music can increase brain waves, improve blood circulation in the brain, and reduce stress hormones. These effects usually are seen during and shortly after music therapy.

Music therapy can relieve treatment-related side effects, such as nausea from chemotherapy. While music therapy does not cure disease, medical experts believe it can aid healing and improve physical movement.

What is music therapy?


Graphic: Musical notes
Music therapy sessions are tailored to fit the needs of patients. In these sessions, individual patients or groups may listen to music or play musical instruments. No previous musical experience or ability is needed for a patient to take part or benefit.

In therapy sessions, participants might write songs, talk about lyrics, or listen to specially requested music—sometimes with added visualization or soothing scents. These sessions may take place in a variety of settings, including the hospital and the home.

No particular kind of music is considered the most therapeutic, according to the American Music Therapy Association. The individual patient’s preferences and needs determine the type of music a therapist uses.

Different types of music will help in different ways and will aid various symptoms. Upbeat or funny music has been shown to have a positive effect on blood pressure, which can drop drastically as a side effect of immunotherapy. Relaxing music can help ease a patient’s stress.

Music therapy also can help with the loss of cognitive function that affects some cancer patients during and after treatment. The therapist might stimulate brain function by having patients make up their own songs or play an instrument. Another technique is having patients listen to several songs and then try to name the titles, artists, or anything else about the music they remember.

The profession of music therapy

Music has been used in medicine for thousands of years. Ancient Greek philosophers believed music could heal both the body and the soul, and Native Americans used singing and chanting as part of their healing rituals.

Music therapy as we know it began after World War I, when music was used to help treat veterans suffering from “shell shock” (now known as posttraumatic stress disorder). This practice continued through World War II, as amateur and professional musicians of all types went to veterans’ hospitals around the country to play for thousands of soldiers who had experienced trauma in the wars. The patients showed such positive physical and emotional responses to music that doctors and nurses urged the hospitals to hire their own musicians.

When it became clear that the hospital musicians needed some specialized training, demand grew for a college curriculum. As a result, the world’s first music therapy degree program was established in 1944 at Michigan State University.

Today, music therapists complete an approved college program as well as fieldwork and an internship. This training prepares them to assess the needs of their clients, develop and implement treatment plans, and evaluate and document clinical changes.

Many hospitals, including The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, have music therapists on staff. These professionals integrate music therapy into patients’ treatment plans to improve the patients’ physical and emotional well-being.

– K. Stuyck

For more information, visit the American Music Therapy Association or the World Federation of Music Therapy or call MD Anderson's Integrative Medicine Center at 713-794-4700.

Other articles in OncoLog, January 2013 issue:

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