Written by Helen Cooke, Joke Bradt and the CAM-Cancer Consortium.
Updated May 20, 2017

Music therapy

What is it?


Music therapy is an established healthcare profession that uses music to address physical, emotional, cognitive and social needs 1,2. Music therapy is delivered by a trained music therapist and is characterized by the presence of a therapeutic relationship and the use of music interventions specifically tailored towards the client’s needs 3,4. This is differentiated from music medicine, which has been defined as listening to pre-recorded music offered by a healthcare professional 3,4,5. Without the presence of a therapist and a therapeutic relationship, music listening in itself is not music therapy 4. It should be noted, however, that there is a lack of consistency in the use of this terminology in the trials reviewed for this summary.

In cancer care, music medicine is generally used for symptom management 3.  In addition to symptom management, music therapists utilize various individualized interventions with cancer patients and their families to address prevailing biopsychosocial and spiritual needs 7,8


Music therapists use a variety of music interventions including playing instruments, singing, instrumental and vocal improvisations, song writing, composing, music-guided imagery and listening to live, improvised or recorded music 2,3. Music therapy sessions are designed according to the needs of the individual or group and involve a systematic process which includes assessment, treatment and evaluation.

In the music medicine trials included in this summary, the pre-recorded music was often selected by the healthcare professionals. However, it has been recommended that patients be encouraged to select their own preferred music 3.

Application and dosage

In cancer care, music therapy is often offered as individual sessions with the patient and may include family members.  Music therapy is also offered in group sessions to facilitate social support among patients. In the trials included in this summary, the dosage and frequency greatly varied. The number of sessions ranged from 1 to 40 (e.g. multiple music listening sessions per day for length of hospital stay). Most sessions lasted 30 to 45 minutes. At this time, the relationship between the frequency and duration of treatment and treatment effect remains unclear.

Recipients of music therapy do not need any prior musical knowledge or experience. 


The use of music to improve health dates back to ancient times 2. Although music therapy is a relatively young health profession, it is well established in both academic and clinical contexts. The first official training program started in Austria in 1959, the UK in 1968 and Norway in 1978. Music therapists often function as a member of an interdisciplinary team in clinical settings but also offer services through private practice. There are many training programs around the world that offer music therapy training at the undergraduate, graduate and doctoral level 9.

Claims of efficacy/alleged indication(s)/mechanism of action

It has been suggested that music therapy in cancer care can promote wellbeing, stress management, pain alleviation, emotional expression, improved communication, spiritual support, physical well-being and a sense of control 2,3. Research suggests that music therapy interventions may be more effective than music medicine interventions with medical populations for a wide variety of outcomes 3. It has been suggested that the difference might relate to how music therapists individualise their intervention to meet patients’ specific needs 3.

Possible mechanisms of actions are framed within a biopsychosocial perspective. Listening to music may reduce anxiety through suppressive action on the sympathetic nervous system, leading to decreased adrenergic activity 10,11,12. In addition, research indicates that music offers an escape from stress and worries related to the cancer diagnosis, treatment, and prognosis 6. Music also activates the rewards and motivation circuitry in the brain resulting in the release of dopamine which regulates perception of pleasure and mood 13. Music making provides opportunities for emotional expressivity which has consistently been linked to mood enhancement 14,15. Music experiences offer opportunities to explore and process emotions in a creative process unique from other therapeutic disciplines and facilitate meaning making through music-evoked reflections 6.

Importantly, music provides patients with an aesthetic experience that can offer comfort and peace during times of distress 6.

Prevalence of use

The exact prevalence of the use of music therapy for people with cancer is unknown.

Legal issues

The World Federation of Music Therapy acts as the international umbrella organization for the profession of music therapy 9. In the US, the Certification Board for Music Therapists grants music therapists a national board certification after successfully passing a board certification exam. Music therapists are required to recertify every 5 years. Professional music therapy courses are at postgraduate level in the UK and most of Europe. ‘Music Therapist’ is a protected title in the UK and all practicing therapists must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council 17. All professionally trained music therapists commit themselves to an ethical code as a quality criteria.

Cost(s) and expenditures

Costs vary depending on the context in which the therapy is given. Some health institutions do not charge for music therapy group sessions.

Citation Helen Cooke, Joke Bradt, CAM-Cancer Consortium. Music therapy [online document]. http://ws.cam-cancer.org/The-Summaries/Mind-body-interventions/Music-therapy. May 20, 2017.


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