Music Therapy and Cancer

Music therapy supports cancer patients through treatment to improve both emotional and physical well-being.

For many people, listening to or making music is an absolute pleasure. Consider also that music, a beloved form of entertainment for some and a passion or career for others, has a significant role in the care of cancer patients. Music therapy may accompany medical treatment to promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, enhance memory, help patients communicate and express feelings, and even promote physical rehabilitation. Studies have shown that making or listening to music can even lower blood pressure and heart and breathing rates. But, according to Dr. Deforia Lane, director of music therapy at University Hospitals of Cleveland Ireland Cancer Center, music’s most precious contribution to individuals undergoing cancer treatment is how it can stir a person at the core, bringing out and honoring the real person behind the diagnosis and allowing for more freedom of self-expression.

The roots of music therapy, now an established healthcare profession, can be traced throughout history, from noted examples in ancient times to its more formal application in the 1940s. In ancient Greek culture, music was believed to heal both body and soul. Native American healing rituals incorporated singing and chanting. These historical instances suggest a timeless relationship between human well-being and the harmonies and rhythms of various cultures and traditions. This long history of a natural relationship between music and well-being ultimately inspired the U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals during World War II to apply music in the treatment of soldiers suffering from shell shock (combat stress reaction). Soon thereafter, in 1944, Michigan State University introduced the world’s first music therapy degree program.

Since then growth in the field of music therapy has included the establishment of degree programs at more than 70 colleges and universities and the founding of the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA), which oversees the development of therapeutic applications of music and monitors educational and training standards for music therapists. The AMTA requires that therapists complete an approved curriculum, including an internship, and successfully complete the Certification Board for Music Therapists exam.

Dr. Lane, a board-certified music therapist who also holds a PhD in music education, says that the application of music therapy must be as individualized as the patients with whom she works. “A diverse patient response requires a similarly diverse offering,” she explains. Depending on the situation, therapy might involve songwriting, employing a favored instrument, playing live or recorded music according to the patient’s request, and sometimes adding visualization or soothing scents.

A positive emotional reaction to music is of course infinitely valuable to cancer patients, but studies have shown that music therapy can also trigger important physical responses. Alleviation of pain is one such area, says Dr. Lane, explaining that the brain uses the same neurotransmitter to send the sensations of both pain and music. If both elements are received at the same time, neither can reach the brain with full intensity. Hence pain is felt less intensely, so patients may experience a decreased dependence on pain medications.

A physical response to music can also relax muscles and dilate veins, both of which can make procedures—such as bone marrow aspirations—less uncomfortable. Music can also support physical rehabilitation as rhythms seem to drive the repetition of movement, compel the listener to cover greater distances, and help naturalize movement as formerly immobile patients relearn how to use their bodies.

As a two-time cancer survivor herself, however, Dr. Lane always returns to the benefits of music that can’t be physically measured or empirically proven. Such experiences she can only describe as—with a nod to Nat King Cole—“unforgettable” are, for her, the soul of her profession. Having witnessed such events as a previously unresponsive patient crying when, at his family’s request, Dr. Lane played “Amazing Grace,” or being told by patients who had been comatose that they remembered hearing her music while unconscious and were stirred to, as one individual reported, “get to the music,” affirms her commitment to music therapy. Of its role in cancer care, she says, “I have an appreciation for anything that helps, that gives hope.”

Fortunately, for individuals undergoing treatment for cancer, dedicated music therapists like Dr. Lane and her ever-growing number of colleagues continue to bring comfort—both physical and emotional—and often happiness. Hope within music therapy rests on the continued growth of this branch of healthcare and within the extended collaboration between therapists and medical experts that will increase the scope and the use of the practice.

To learn more about music therapy, please visit the American Music Therapy Association at

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