Music therapy is the use of music by trained professionals to encourage relaxation and enhance quality of life in people receiving health care. The hope is to relieve stress and promote well-being. Some people experience reduction of symptoms and improved healing. If you love listening to music, this therapy might be right for you.

During music therapy, you listen to music or use musical instruments under the guidance of a music therapist. Other types of music therapy include singing and writing songs. Music therapy may be used along with other therapies, such as art therapy.

You don’t need to have any musical ability or experience to benefit from music therapy. It is thought that our brain and body respond naturally to sound, including the rhythm and beat of music.

Music Therapy as a Complementary Therapy

Music can be a powerful tool to help you regulate your mood, express your feelings, and interact with others.

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines music therapy as “the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional” (AMTA, 2013).

Music therapy can ease nausea and vomiting following high-dose chemotherapy when combined with anti-nausea drugs. In people with cancer, music therapy can:

  • Increase feelings of relaxation, comfort, calm, and pleasure
  • Enhance creativity through opportunities for self-expression
  • Ease fear and anxiety
  • Reduce short-term pain
  • Decrease intensity of pain when combined with pain-reducing drugs
  • Minimise the need for pain medication in some patients
  • Lessen feelings of isolation and loneliness
  • Improve quality of life

Music therapy can also affect stress hormones and brain waves (which can induce relaxation).

One of the main reasons people with cancer use music therapy is because it makes them feel good and the Music therapy sessions can provide a safe space for children with cancer to explore their fear, anxiety, anger and the range of emotional responses to living with cancer.

Music Therapy helps Children with Cancer to adjust to their prognosis easier, to cooperate and communicate, and to socialise with others.


A handful of studies on Neurologic Music Therapy report that it eases depression, improves stuttering, enhances brain plasticity, and improves function and emotional adjustment in people with traumatic brain injury.

Other studies on music therapy show that it may reduce breathing rate, heart rate, blood pressure, insomnia, depression and anxiety.

Chemotherapy: In 2013 a small Turkish study looked at using music therapy and guided visual imagery for 40 people with anxiety, nausea and vomiting due to chemotherapy. In the study the patients’ anxiety levels greatly reduced and they also had less frequent and less severe nausea and vomiting. The researchers stated that the music therapy and visual imagery had positive effects.

Stem Cell Transplants: A study in 2003 looked at 69 cancer patients having music therapy. The results showed that it helped people who were having a particular type of stem cell transplant to have fewer mood changes. Stem cell transplants can cause a great deal of distress and anxiety.

Radiation Therapy: In 2006 a small trial looked at using music therapy for 63 people having radiotherapy. The researchers found that the music therapy helped people to feel less anxious. People who listened to music more often seemed to have more benefit. But the therapy did not seem to help people feel less tired or have less pain. This was a small study and more research is needed to show whether music therapy can help patients during radiotherapy.

Physical and Psychological: In 2011 researchers reviewed all the studies that used music therapy to help cancer patients psychologically and physically. There were 30 trials and 1,891 people took part. The results suggested that music therapy can lower levels of anxiety in people with cancer but in this review it did not seem to reduce depression. The music therapy could also slightly lower pain levels, heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure. In this study the reviewers found no strong evidence that music therapy could reduce tiredness (fatigue) or help with physical symptoms.

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

End of Life: In 2010 researchers reviewed all the studies that looked at music therapy for people at the end of life. There were 5 studies and 175 people took part. The results seemed to show that music therapy can help to improve the quality of life for people in the last months or years of life. But the studies were small and so it is difficult to be sure. The authors say that we need more research. In this review the music therapy did not seem to help with pain or anxiety. But only 2 studies looked at these factors.

Children and Young People: A small 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 and breathing rates during and after the procedure. This is a small study but it showed that the music therapy helped to reduce pain and fear for the children having a lumbar puncture.

A researcher in 2011 in Australia interviewed 26 children up to 14 years old and 28 of their parents. They asked questions about the children’s relationship to music during their cancer experience and treatment. The study found that the use of music often made difficult experiences easier for the children to cope with.

Music also helped with family and social relationships and promoted the children’s resilience and normal development. Music therapy and associated programs often helped to reduce children’s distress.

The researcher suggested that the positive effects may carry over into children’s home lives and so also support their families. The study recommended that health professionals should consider ways to help parents to use music to support children with cancer. Hospitals can help patients by providing music based support services, including music therapy, and reducing unwanted stressful sounds.

We don’t yet know about all the ways that 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 the full benefit of music therapy, we need larger trials in a wider range of cancers.

How is Music Therapy Administered?

Trained music therapists tailor sessions to individuals and groups based on their needs and musical preferences. Music therapy is given in various settings like hospitals, treatment centres, at home or outdoors.

Music therapy can be experienced in a receptive or an active mode. In the receptive mode, you simply listen to and absorb sound, which can provide a particularly powerful means of experiencing deep relaxation.

In the active mode, you participate in making music along with the therapist—either one-on-one or in a group setting.

Music therapy sessions usually last between 30 to 60 minutes. The therapist may encourage patients to play or listen to music at home between sessions. Depending on the situation, a patient may have regular therapy for weeks or months, and could decide that they want to see their music therapist privately, or take part in group music therapy sessions.

The relationship between the patient and their music therapist is very important, and it is vital that if the patient does not feel comfortable with anything their therapist is doing, they discuss it with them.

One does not need to have a musical background to sing or play along with the music, or to select the music and help write songs. There are many ways that one can get involved in the musical experience and draw pleasure from it.

Rock Against Cancer Music Therapy
Published on Dec 12, 2014
Video from Children’s National Medical Center showing the
Rock Against Cancer Music Therapist working with young cancer patients.

Sound Energy Therapy

Sound energy therapy uses instruments or pre-recorded tones to produce sounds that soothe listeners into a state of relaxation. Instruments commonly used during sound energy therapy sessions include Tibetan singing bowls, crystal bowls and tuning forks.

Pre-recorded sounds are often designed to deliver two tones at a different frequency into each ear.

This causes the listener to perceive a single tone that varies in amplitude at a frequency equal to the difference between the two tones. The single tone perceived by the brain is known as a binaural auditory beat.

These types of sound therapy haven’t been as thoroughly researched as music therapy.

Though few clinical studies have scientifically investigated sound energy therapy, many individuals say that it promotes deep relaxation, enhances learning, improves sleep and reduces perception of stress.

Studies on binaural auditory beat suggest it may improve sleep, memory task performance, attention, relaxation and mood.

Side Effects and Risks

Talk to your healthcare team if you are thinking about trying music therapy. Music therapy is thought to be safe when it’s done by an accredited music therapist, or MTA.

Music therapy can be a useful complementary therapy that helps people with cancer deal with their emotions. Even though uncomfortable feelings may be stirred up at times, this is part of the healing process. MTAs are trained to help you with the emotions that you may experience during the therapy.


Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.