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Music Therapy

Music therapy uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of patients. A clinical, evidence-based practice, music therapy can be used to reduce stress, manage pain and provide a physical, emotional or creative outlet. During cancer treatment, music therapists work closely with the care team — particularly child life specialists, speech therapists, physical therapists, occupational therapists and social workers — to understand what type of music therapy interventions are appropriate for children.

A patient's hand touches guitar strings

Patients vary in how they respond to a complementary therapy. Some can have serious side effects, so talk to the medical team before trying any complementary therapy.

Benefits of music therapy during cancer

The brain processes information such as sights and sounds to help us make sense of the world around us. Music allows us to understand things that are complicated. It stimulates areas of the brain which control our emotions, memory, and physical movement. Music also increases the serum melatonin levels the body uses to relax. It causes the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine which activates reward centers in the brain. The reward system is part of the nervous system responsible for positive emotions and associative learning.

In music therapy, patients engage in specific music interventions with the assistance of a professional music therapist. In recent years, music therapy has become part of mainstream health care and it is effective in:

  • Physical rehabilitation and facilitating movement.
  • Increasing motivation to become more engaged in treatment.
  • Providing emotional support for patients and families.
  • Providing an outlet for expression of feelings.

Music has the ability to evoke powerful imagery, emotions or thoughts. Patients and families may discuss the appropriateness of music therapy as part of their care plan. Music therapists offer the best uses of music based on need and music preferences to meet individual goals.

Music can be motivating for a patient to improve gross and fine motor skills, decrease heart rate and increase oxygen saturation, or create a relaxed environment. It is therapeutic and individualized by patient.

Amy, Music Therapist

Types of music therapy

Music therapy utilizes a variety of musical activities including:

  • Listening to music
  • Creating music – playing instruments with support or independently, or writing songs
  • Therapeutic singing
  • Moving to music
  • Analyzing music – discussing the meaning or interpretation of song lyrics
pediatric cancer patient with hands on a keyboard that has notes written on it

Creating music is one activity that music therapy may use - from playing instruments to writing songs.

Music therapy for infants

The type of music intervention often varies by age and developmental level. For infants, music therapy may involve listening to music, singing to encourage the child to respond to their own sounds (infant-directed singing) and interacting with musical instruments. Music therapy can help babies:

  • Adjust to being in a new environment like the hospital.
  • Familiarize medical staff involved in the patient’s care.
  • Between activities/appointments in the hospital.
  • Anticipate and understand what is happening such as a song at bath time or leaving the house.

Music therapy for school aged children

Fun music interventions may be used to address physical, emotional, cognitive, social and academic needs. Music therapy may offer the opportunity express thoughts and feelings that children may not be able to otherwise demonstrate. It can help with:

  • Anxiety management
  • Management of pain perception
  • Changes in mood
  • Positive coping mechanisms

Music therapy for teens

For older children and teens, music therapy can involve listening to, creating or analyzing music and lyrics. Music therapy can help older children:

  • Relax and improve sleep if in pain or anxious.
  • Understand and better express emotions if having difficulty talking about their feelings.
  • Feel more productive and motivated when frustrated or tired.
  • Maintain social relationships and connections when feeling isolated or alone.
  • Have a greater sense of self-esteem that is not connected to body image.

Reviewed: June 2018