Music therapy | Cancer Research UK
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What music therapy is

Music therapy uses music and sound to

  • Help you to express your emotions
  • Help you cope with symptoms of a disease and its treatment
  • Improve your emotional and physical well being
  • Develop self confidence and self esteem
  • Develop or re-kindle a sense of creativity
  • Help you to relax and feel comfortable

You don’t need to be musical to get something out of music therapy. It isn’t about learning to sing, or play an instrument. In a music therapy session, you may

  • Listen to music
  • Move to music
  • Sing
  • Make music with simple instruments, with the music therapist
  • Write and discuss song lyrics
  • Use guided imagery alongside music

There are more than 600 registered music therapists in the UK. They work in various places, including NHS hospitals, hospices and nursing homes. 

Music therapists work alongside other health care professionals such as doctors, nurses, speech therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists. They may work with adults and children who have

  • Symptoms caused by physical illness or mental illness
  • Side effects from cancer and its treatment
  • Terminal illness such as cancer

Why people with cancer use music therapy

One of the main reasons people with cancer use music therapy is because it makes them feel good. Many of us know how calming and relaxing it can be to listen to a favourite piece of music. It can help people with cancer to cope with side effects such as

Music therapy can be a safe place for people to explore fear, anxiety, anger and the range of emotional responses to living with cancer. 

Some studies show that music therapy can help children with cancer to cope, by encouraging them to cooperate and communicate.


What music therapy involves

You work with your music therapist to plan a programme that suits your needs. You decide together how often you should have the therapy, and how long each session will be.

Music therapy sessions usually last between 30 to 60 minutes. Your therapist may encourage you to play or listen to music at home between sessions. Depending on your situation, you may have regular therapy for weeks or months. You may want to see your music therapist privately, or take part in group music therapy sessions.

Your relationship with your music therapist is very important. If you don’t feel comfortable with anything your therapist is doing, do discuss it with them. 

Look at our difficulties with your practitioner page for information on changing your therapist or stopping therapy.


Research into music therapy in cancer care

Music therapy cannot cure, treat or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. But some research shows that music therapy can help people with cancer reduce their anxiety.

Music therapy can help people with cancer improve their quality of life. It can also help to reduce some cancer symptoms, and side effects of treatment. 

Research has looked at music therapy for

People having chemotherapy

In 2013 a small Turkish study looked at using music therapy and guided visual imagery for 40 people with anxiety, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy. In the study the patients' anxiety levels greatly reduced and they also had less frequent and less severe nausea and vomiting. The researchers stated that the music therapy and visual imagery had positive effects.

A study in 2003 looked at 69 cancer patients having music therapy. The results showed that it helped people who were having a particular type of stem cell transplant to have fewer mood changes. Stem cell transplants can cause a great deal of distress and anxiety.

People having radiotherapy

In 2006 a small trial looked at using music therapy for 63 people having radiotherapy. The researchers found that the music therapy helped people to feel less anxious. People who listened to music more often seemed to have more benefit. But the therapy did not seem to help people feel less tired or have less pain. This was a small study and more research is needed to show whether music therapy can help patients during radiotherapy.

Physical and psychological help for people with cancer

In 2011 researchers reviewed all the studies that used music therapy to help cancer patients psychologically and physically. There were 30 trials and 1,891 people took part. The results suggested that music therapy can lower levels of anxiety in people with cancer but in this review it did not seem to reduce depression. The music therapy could also slightly lower pain levels, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. In this study the reviewers found no strong evidence that music therapy could reduce tiredness (fatigue) or help with physical symptoms. You can read the music therapy for cancer patients review on the Cochrane Library website.

Music therapy at the end of life

In 2010 researchers reviewed all the studies that looked at music therapy for people at the end of life. There were 5 studies and 175 people took part. The results seemed to show that music therapy can help to improve the quality of life for people in the last months or years of life. But the studies were small and so it is difficult to be sure. The authors say that we need more research. In this review the music therapy did not seem to help with pain or anxiety. But only 2 studies looked at these factors. You can read the review of music therapy in end of life care on the Cochrane Library website.

Music for cancer pain

In 2006 reviewers looked at all the studies that used music to reduce pain in people with cancer. It included 51 studies with a total of 3,663 people taking part. Listening to music to reduce pain is cheap, easy to provide and is safe. The reviewers found that music reduced pain and also reduced the need for strong painkillers. But the benefit was small and the reviewers said that music should not be considered a first treatment for pain relief. You can read the review of music for cancer pain relief on the Cochrane Library website.

Children and young people

A small study in Vietnam looked at using music therapy to reduce pain and anxiety in children with cancer having a lumbar puncture. 40 children with leukaemia took part, aged from 7 to 12. Half the children had music therapy during the lumbar puncture and half did not. The children who had music therapy had less pain and lower heart and breathing rates during and after the procedure. This is a small study but it showed that the music therapy helped to reduce pain and fear for the children having a lumbar puncture.

A researcher in 2011 in Australia interviewed 26 children up to 14 years old and 28 of their parents. They asked questions about the children's relationship to music during their cancer experience and treatment. The study found that the use of music often made difficult experiences easier for the children to cope with. Music also helped with family and social relationships and promoted the children's resilience and normal development. Music therapy and associated programs often helped to reduce children's distress. 

The researcher suggested that the positive effects may carry over into children's home lives and so also support their families. The study recommended that health professionals should consider ways to help parents to use music to support children with cancer. Hospitals can help patients by providing music based support services, including music therapy, and reducing unwanted stressful sounds.

We don’t yet know about all the ways that music can affect the body. But we do know that when music therapy is used in the right way for each person, it can help them to feel better. To learn more about the full benefit of music therapy, we need larger trials in a wider range of cancers.


Possible side effects of music therapy

Generally, music therapy is very safe and has no side effects. But very loud music or particular types of music may make some people feel uncomfortable or irritated. 

The music may trigger strong reactions or evoke memories which might range from pleasant to painful.  A music therapist is trained to support patients during these processes.


The cost of music therapy

Some cancer centres and hospitals in the UK offer patients music therapy treatments free of charge. So you can ask if it is available at the ward or centre where you have your treatment. If not, staff at your hospital may be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that offer free or low cost complementary therapy treatments to people with cancer. 

You can arrange music therapy sessions privately through the British Association of Music Therapists. Sessions usually cost around £40 per hour. 

It is very important that you have your treatments with a registered therapist.


Finding a music therapist

There are currently more than 600 music therapists in the UK. They are all trained musicians who have also studied music therapy at postgraduate level. 

Currently in the UK, music therapists with a professional qualification must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC). The title of music therapist is protected by UK law. Only people who have taken a course recognised by the Health Professions and Care Council and registered with the HCPC can call themselves a music therapist. 

The British Association for Music Therapy is the professional body for music therapists and can put you in touch with music therapists in your area. 

When you talk to a music therapist, you can ask them

  • Whether they have a qualification in music therapy
  • Whether they are registered with the HCPC
  • How many years of training they've had
  • How long they've been practicing
  • What experience they have of working with people with cancer
  • If they have special training in cancer care
  • If they have indemnity insurance (in case of negligence)
  • If they see people in the person's own home or do they have a room in a clinic or therapy building
  • How much they charge
  • What their cancellation policy is

Useful links and organisations

There are a number of different organisations that music therapists can join. These are listed here, with details of what they can offer and how you can contact them.

British Association for Music Therapy (BAMT)
2nd Floor
24–27 White Lion Street
London N1 9PD
Tel: 020 7837 6100

The professional body for music therapists. Acts as an advisory body and a source of information on music therapy services, support, training and research.

Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC)
184 Kennington Park Road
London SE11 4BU
Tel: 0845 300 6184

An independent, UK health regulator. Sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists. Keeps a register of qualified music therapists.

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Updated: 5 February 2015