Music therapy administered in conjunction with traditional treatments may help reduce cancer patients' anxiety and improve their quality of life, according to a new comprehensive research review.

Suddenly faced with a scary diagnosis, an uncertain future and a myriad of potentially invasive treatments, cancer patients often experience anxiety, grief and depression. Their emotional distress is also physically taxing and may result in such physiological changes as high blood pressure, respiratory difficulties and rapid heart rates. As a complementary and holistic treatment, music therapy has been provided in various settings to alleviate such emotional and physical suffering of cancer patients.

Published online this week by the Cochrane Collaboration, a non-partisan international organization that compiles and reviews medical research, the report examined the results of various clinical trials assessing the effect of music intervention on cancer patients' mood, anxiety, pain level and quality of life.

Art Therapy For Anxiety

Joke Bradt, Ph.D., associate professor in the Creative Arts Therapies Department at Drexel University, and her colleagues examined 30 randomized control trials of music therapy and music medicine interventions. The first treatment entails the use of a trained music therapist who provides a customized music experience, while music medicine interventions are simpler and involve having patients listen to pre-recorded music offered by medical personnel. The 30 trials reviewed included a total of 1,891 participants, with 13 of the treatments involving trained music therapists, and 17 constituting music medicine interventions that utilized pre-recorded songs. The trials varied in length and number of sessions, and patients undergoing biopsy for diagnostic purposes were excluded.

In reviewing the results of the trials, scientists found that both music interventions may be associated with reduced anxiety levels and improvement in mood and quality of life among the participants. Small reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure were also noted, along with moderate improvements in pain-reduction. Bradt noted that music provides a creative outlet for cancer patients to convey emotions otherwise difficult to express through words alone.

More Research Needs to Be Done

The benefit of music therapy for depression and fatigue was not conclusive. Researchers acknowledged a high risk of bias with the trials, suggesting the need to interpret the findings cautiously. Nevertheless, lead researcher Bradt encourages cancer patients to listen to music daily, citing its many benefits.

Recognizing the physical and psychological benefits of music, health care professionals are increasingly recommending music therapy as a complementary treatment for their patients. Trained music therapists provide therapeutic treatment to patients through singing, songwriting, improvising, and listening and moving to music. Different models exist to address the unique needs of children, adolescents, stroke survivors, heart patients, and epileptics, among others. It is often recommended for behavioral, emotional, communication and attention problems seen in kids and teens, to improve motor skill deficiencies during physical rehabilitation, and to promote movement and cognition among the elderly. The underlying theory behind this type of treatment is that music affects parts of the brain, promotes positive feelings, increases motivation and eases stress. Sessions are generally conducted in groups, through a series of one-on-one meetings or a combination of both.

Recommended For You

Jenni Rook, MT-BC, LCPC
Marni Rosen, Psy.D., ATR


Date of original publication: