Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Music therapy

Music therapy uses music to promote healing and enhance quality of life. It is a complementary therapy that is used along with other cancer treatments to help patients cope mentally and physically with their diagnosis. Music therapy may involve listening to music, creating music, singing and discussing music, in addition to guided imagery with music.

Can music therapy help people with cancer?
How does music therapy work?
Are there any possible problems or complications associated with music therapy?

Can music therapy help people with cancer?

Scientific studies have shown the positive value of music therapy on the body, mind and spirit of children and adults. Researchers have found that music therapy used along with anti-emetic drugs (drugs that relieve nausea and vomiting) for patients receiving high-dose chemotherapy can be effective in easing the physical symptoms of nausea and vomiting. When used in combination with pain-relieving drugs, music has been found to decrease the overall intensity of the patient’s experience of pain and can sometimes result in a reduced dependence on pain medication.

Music also can help to:

  • Relieve stress, apprehension and fear
  • Improve mood
  • Lower heart rate, blood pressure and breathing rate
  • Relieve depression
  • Relieve sleeplessness
  • Relieve muscle tension and provide relaxation

Music therapists believe that:

  • Rhythm is beneficial. Our muscles, including the heart muscle, synchronize to the beat of music. For example, some classical music approximates the rhythm of the resting heart (70 beats per minute). This music can slow a heart that is beating too fast.
  • Self-expression in music therapy can reveal subconscious thoughts and feelings and be therapeutic in the same way psychotherapy has shown to be therapeutic.
  • The creative process of creating art whether it is through music, painting, sculpture or dance can be beneficial.

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How does music therapy work?

Music therapy can be incorporated into many different environments. People listen to music alone or in groups, with trained therapists or without. It can be as simple as someone listening to a CD. Specially selected music can be broadcasted into hospital rooms.

Music therapists design music therapy sessions for a wide variety of needs. Some of the ways music is used as a therapy include:

  • Music improvisation
  • Receptive music listening
  • Song writing
  • Lyric discussion
  • Imagery and relaxation
  • Performance of music

For example, in a music therapy session that is specially designed to promote self-expression, the therapist might create a musical and emotional environment that encourages you to respond by revealing personal experiences or feelings. The session might incorporate speech and drama as well as music. Or the therapist might use singing and discussions. By playing music with lyrics, the therapist can encourage you to make up words that are then formed into a positive, unique song.

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Are there any possible problems or complications associated with music therapy?

Music therapy, as an addition to your cancer treatment plan, has the potential to be pleasant and productive, but should not replace the care and treatment provided by your cancer care team. Always consult your physician for more information.

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