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Music therapy

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

Summary

  • You don't need to be musically talented to do music therapy.
  • It can help you relax and improve your emotional and physical well being.
  • Music therapy cannot cure, treat or prevent cancer.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is not 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 with 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

Why people with cancer use it

One of the main reasons people with cancer use music therapy is because it makes them feel good. Listening to music can be calming and relaxing. 

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 it 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.

In 2017 a study looked at whether music therapy could help reduce anxiety in patients having radiotherapy simulation. 

Seventy eight patients took part who had either head and neck cancer or breast cancer. The researchers found that the music therapy did help reduce their anxiety during the radiotherapy simulation. 

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 2016 there was a review of all the studies that used music to try to reduce pain, including in people with cancer. It showed that music may be an effective way of relieving pain in some people. 

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 around 800 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.

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
Email: info@bamt.org

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
London
SE11 4BU

Phone: 0300 500 6184

Last reviewed: 
07 Mar 2019
  • 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

  • The impact of music therapy on anxiety in cancer patients undergoing simulation for radiation therapy

    A. Rossetti  and others

    International Journal of Radiation Oncology, 2017. Volume 99, Issue 1

  • The effects of music on pain: A meta-analysis

    J H. Lee 

    Journal of music therapy, 2016. Volume 53, Issue 4

  • 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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