Michael M. Richardson walks the hallways of Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center in a crisp white lab coat—the same coat worn by dozens of other medical professionals buzzing about the campus. And yet something makes Richardson stand out: He’s the only one with a guitar case strapped to his back.
Richardson is one of the 5,600-plus board certified music therapists in the United States. Many large cancer centers have embraced music therapy as a way to improve patient wellbeing and reduce pain and anxiety—benefits increasingly supported by research. A recent review of 30 studies and nearly 1,900 patients with a cancer diagnosis concluded that music therapy relieves anxiety, improves mood and decreases pain. A session can involve anything from listening to music and writing a song to learning how to play the ukulele.
“Music can be very powerful,” says Kimberly Sena Moore, a certified music therapist and PhD candidate at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “It can help families cope, and it can help patients cope—emotionally, socially and from a pain and anxiety standpoint as well.”
Just as a counselor will have a different conversation with every patient, no two music therapy sessions are the same. By definition, music therapy is a personalized music intervention by a credentialed music therapist.
“Sometimes our sessions are just music conversations,” says Holly Chartrand, music therapist and co-coordinator for Massachusetts General Hospital’s environmental music program. “Sometimes we do music listening, and it’s really about being in the moment and experiencing music together.”
Chartrand also offers clinical music lessons, either at the bedside or as a welcome distraction when patients are receiving chemotherapy. The hospital even has an instrument-lending program for patients who want to practice. The most popular instrument, she says: the ukulele.
Other common therapy experiences include singing along to music, writing new lyrics to a familiar song, toning and chanting and guided imagery to music. Sessions can last anywhere from 5 to 45 minutes.
Patients and survivors can ask their medical team for information on music therapy and for help finding a therapist. To locate a board-certified music therapist, cbmt.org offers a listing by state.
A large body of evidence shows that music can improve mood, pain and anxiety in patients. And while working with a music therapist is generally more effective than simply listening to music, just listening to music is still valuable, studies show.
New technology has allowed researchers to observe just how music therapy might work. “When we are engaging in music, even something as simple as listening, brain images and scans show that our brain lights up,” Sena Moore says.
What the scans show: Listening to pleasurable music helps deactivate the amygdala, a brain structure that processes emotional responses. “That’s telling our body, ‘We can calm down now, everything’s OK,’” says Sena Moore. Music also activates the brain’s pleasure and reward system, which may counteract pain.