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Music therapy

Music therapy uses music and sound to help express emotions and improve emotional and physical well being.

Music therapy can help you to:

  • express your emotions
  • cope with symptoms of a disease and its treatment
  • relax and feel comfortable
  • improve your emotional and physical well being
  • develop self confidence and self esteem
  • develop or rekindle a sense of creativity

You don’t need to be musically talented to get something out of music therapy. It isn’t about learning to sing, or play an instrument.

In a music therapy session, you might:

  • listen to music
  • move to music
  • sing
  • make music with simple instruments
  • write and discuss song lyrics
  • use guided imagery alongside music

Music therapists work alongside other healthcare 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
  • a terminal illness such as cancer

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

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:

  • pain
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sickness

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 might encourage you to play or listen to music at home between sessions.

You might have regular therapy for weeks or months. You may want to see your therapist on your own, 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 talk to them about it.

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. It can also help to improve quality of life and reduce symptoms and side effects.

We don’t yet know about all the ways 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 its full benefits, we need larger trials across a wider range of cancers.

In 2013, a small Turkish study of 40 people looked at using music therapy and guided visual imagery to help with anxiety and sickness due to chemotherapy.

The researchers stated that the music therapy and visual imagery had positive effects. The participants had greatly reduced anxiety levels. They also had less frequent and less severe nausea and vomiting.

A study in 2003 showed that music therapy helped people with cancer while having a stem cell transplant. Stem cell transplants can cause a great deal of distress and anxiety. The music therapy helped reduce mood disturbances such as anxiety and depression. The study included 69 people.

In 2006 a trial looked at using music therapy for people having radiotherapy.

The researchers found that the music therapy helped people to feel less anxious. And the people who listened to music more often seemed to have more benefit. The therapy did not seem to help people feel less tired or have less pain.  

This was a small study of only 63 people, so we need more research to be sure of music therapy's benefit for people having radiotherapy.

There was a review in 2011 of all the studies that used music therapy to help people with cancer physically and psychologically. There were 30 trials with a total of 1,891 people.

The results suggested that music therapy can lower levels of anxiety, but did not seem to reduce depression. ​The music therapy could also slightly lower pain levels, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

There was no strong evidence that music therapy could reduce tiredness (fatigue) or help with physical symptoms.

In 2010 researchers reviewed all the studies that looked at music therapy for people at the end of life. There were 5 studies with a total of 175 people.

The results seemed to show that music therapy could help to improve the quality of life for people in the last months or years of life. But the studies were small so it's difficult to be sure.

The music therapy did not seem to help with pain or anxiety. But only 2 of the studies looked at these factors. The authors said that more research was needed.

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.

Listening to music to reduce pain is cheap, easy to provide and safe. The reviewers found that music reduced pain and also reduced the need for strong painkillers. But the benefit was small. The reviewers said that music should not be considered a first treatment for pain relief.

A 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 rates and breathing rates during and after the procedure.

This was a small study but it showed that the music therapy helped to reduce pain and fear for the children having a lumbar puncture.

In 2011 researchers in Australia interviewed 26 children up to 14 years old, and 28 of their parents. They asked about the children's relationship to music during their cancer experience and treatment.

The found that music often made it easier for children to cope with difficult experiences. Music also helped with family and social relationships, and promoted the children's resilience and their normal development. The researchers suggested that the positive effects may carry over into children's home lives and so also support their families. 

They recommended that health professionals consider ways to help parents use music to support children with cancer. Hospitals can help by providing music based support services, including music therapy, and reducing unwanted stressful sounds.

Possible side effects

Music therapy is generally very safe and has no side effects. But very loud music or particular types of music might irritate some people or make them feel uncomfortable.

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

How much it costs

Some cancer centres and hospitals in the UK offer music therapy free of charge. Ask if it's available at the ward or centre where you have your treatment.

If it isn’t, your doctors or nurses might be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that do, or do so at a low cost.

You can arrange music therapy sessions privately through the British Association of Music Therapists. Sessions usually cost around £40 an hour. It is very important that you see 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.

The title of music therapist is protected by UK law. In the UK, music therapists with a professional qualification must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

You can only call yourself a music therapist if you have registered with the HCPC and taken a course that they recognise.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful links and organisations

There are a number of different organisations that music therapists can join.

The BAMT is the professional body for music therapists. It acts as an advisory body and a source of information on music therapy services, support, training and research.

2nd Floor
24–27 White Lion Street
London N1 9PD

Tel: 020 7837 6100

An independent, UK health regulator that keeps a register of qualified therapists. It sets standards of training, performance and conduct for health professionals, including music therapists, art therapists and drama therapists.

184 Kennington Park Road
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

Last reviewed: 
05 Feb 2015
  • Complete Guide to Complementary and Alternative Cancer Therapies (2nd edition)
    American Cancer Society, 2009

  • Effects of music therapy and guided visual imagery on chemotherapy-induced anxiety and nausea-vomiting
    S Karagozoglu and others
    Journal of Clinical Nursing, 2013. Volume 22, Issue 1-2

  • Music therapy for mood disturbance during hospitalization for autologous stem cell transplantation: a randomized controlled trial
    BR Cassileth and others
    Cancer, 2003. Volume 98, Issue 12

  • Use of preferred music to reduce emotional distress and symptom activity during radiation therapy
    M Clark and others
    Journal of Music Therapy, 2006. Volume 43, Issue 3

  • Music therapy to reduce pain and anxiety in children with cancer undergoing lumbar puncture: a randomized clinical trial
    TN Nguyen and others
    Journal of Pediatric Nursing, 2010. Volume 27, Issue 3

  • Music's relevance for pediatric cancer patients: a constructivist and mosaic research approach
    C O'Callaghan and others
    Supportive Care in Cancer, 2011. Volume 19, Issue 6

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