Music Therapy for Cancer

What is Music Therapy?

Music therapy is based on the belief that whatever a person’s condition they can respond to music letting it extend its therapeutic benefits and improve their quality of life.

This therapy is an interpersonal process between the therapist and the client where a trained music therapist uses all the different facets of music (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual, aesthetic and social) to help clients to maintain or improve their health.

Music experiences such as taking part in music, singing, moving to music, song-writing and listening to music are used to help clients improve their quality of life as well as their level of functioning.

Music therapists’ practices can include developmental work with communication or motor skills with individuals who have special needs. This therapy is widely used throughout the helping professions across people of all ages with a huge variety of conditions.

Music therapy is used for medical problems, developmental disabilities, psychiatric disorders, physical handicaps, communication disorders, substance abuse, aging, interpersonal problems, sensory impairments and much more.

Music Therapy and Childhood Cancer

When Music Therapy is used in childhood cancer it aims to stimulate communication as well as reduce some of the symptoms associated with cancer and cancer treatment such as pain, anxiety, mood disturbance and depression. It can also help children cope better with hospitalisation. Trained music therapists can effectively reduce both patient and family anxiety and depression. (1)

Music can create an atmosphere of play helping children to release tension and encouraging self-expression. Music therapy aims to provide emotional support, increase self-esteem, provide a medium for creative self-expression, give an opportunity for control and independence, encourage relaxation and maintain age appropriate development. (2)


1. Leo is battling Rhabdomyosarcoma, a relatively rare soft tissue cancer. Leo has told Beth Collier, RAC (Rock Against Cancer) on several occasions that singing and playing music makes him forget about his pain.

Beth Collier also mentions using an electric guitar and amp with a 10 year old who has had a brain tumour for several years. She has a lot of trouble voicing but when a microphone was pulled out she sang along with the music. (3)

2. In a study of 4 to 7 year old cancer patients, children whose care included music based activities showed a greater frequency of positive coping behaviours than children did not. The study compared children who played handheld instruments or sang action based songs to children who simply listened to music or audio storybooks.

The group of active music children were more likely to laugh and smile, initiate a comment, question or request from a parent or other person, or to fix their eyes on an activity. These types of actions illustrate that these children are less stressed; as children under stress will typically withdraw and shutdown. (4)

For further research studies also see: Integrative Therapies from Columbia University, cancernetwork,, BBC News.

What Happens in a Music Therapy Session?

At the first session a therapist will assess the individual’s needs but if it is a group session this does not normally happen.

Different therapists can have different approaches and the therapist will normally assess the feelings of the group or individual on the day. In a group session there often is a ring of chairs and a selection of instruments which can include percussion, guitar and keyboards. The session can contain free improvisation or structured musical activities, or a combination. There may be swapping over of instruments and a period to reflect upon the group’s music.

If an individual is working one on one with a therapist then it is possible to identify the aims and personal aspects which would be good for the patient to explore.

Music therapy is practiced with therapeutic guidelines in order for the patients to feel safe, such as the use of the same space or room and same time of the week/day when possible. (5)

A Brief History of Music Therapy

It was an ancient practice to use music in healing ceremonies as these primitive people viewed illness as originating from magic-religious forces. They believed that music combined with dances or words, as well as songs and music producing instruments were effective in exorcising disease or healing wounds.
During the Middle Ages illness was seen as a punishment which led to the mentally ill being considered to be possessed by evil spirits which in turn led to cruel torment as well as the murders of thousands of men and women.

However by the end of the 18th century scientists has begun to investigate the effects of music on the human body. By the end of the 19thcentury there was a growth in the amount of researchers looking into the effect of music systematically. They were also looking at the relationships between music and physiological or psychological responses. (6)

As a profession, music therapy was believed to have been a hospital developed practice originally in psychiatric hospitals. A great deal of the popularity and establishment of music therapy originated from wars, as wars had a big influence in bringing mental illness to the fore.