Music therapy and cancer
Music therapy uses music and sound to help express emotions and improve emotional and physical well being.
- 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
- 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 and 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 might 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.
A Cochrane review in 2021 looked at all the studies using music therapy to help people with cancer. There were 81 trials with a total of 5576 people.
The results suggested that music therapy may help with anxiety, depression, hope, pain and fatigue in adults with cancer. The design of many of the trials had limitations though. So the authors suggest more research is needed.
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.
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
Phone: 0300 500 6184