Health Benefits of Music Therapy

Music therapy provides our young patients with a unique source of comfort and strength.
Sam Hawgood, MBBS, Chancellor, UCSF

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Music therapy is a wonderful option for children and teens in the hospital battling illnesses. This program involves a certified professional using music in a clinical way to accomplish goals that are individualized to each person. Music is used to reduce the pain of a patient, offer them the ability to express themselves without words and facilitate relaxation through singing, playing instruments, writing songs or listening to music.

This popular and historic health psychology practice uses the physical, emotional, mental, aesthetic and spiritual facets of music to help people improve their overall health. When children and teens are able to express themselves creatively through music therapy, they can release negative feelings and emotions in an effective and productive way.

Historical Use of Music Therapy

Music therapy is prevalent in Greek mythology, philosophy and Native American culture. In our recent history, music therapy was a prominent resource during World War I and World War II. During these two historic wars, community musicians volunteered their time and played for veterans and the wounded in hospitals. Both patients and nurses noticed a difference in mood and experienced a positive emotional response to the music. They noted feeling an improvement in their outlook and felt less pain. The music was so well received that doctors began hiring musicians to play for soldiers.

Currently music therapy is enjoyed by children, teens and adults facing great feats in hospitals. One of the great aspects of music therapy is that it is individualized from patient to patient. This means that one child may find success learning a new instrument, while others may enjoy writing songs, singing or simply listening to music. Children especially have a strong interest in music therapy because it is not only fun for them, but it also provides mental and physical relief. Here are some health benefits to music therapy.

Physical and Mental Benefits of Music Therapy

Physical Benefits

Music therapy helps sick kids relax and feel less pain.

Music therapy helps sick kids relax and feel less pain.

For children and teens with cancer and other illnesses, the pain can be unimaginable and unbearable. No matter how much medication is given to them, sometimes it just isn’t enough. Through listening and playing music as well as song writing and singing, pain among patients reduces. Music therapy can help to relieve pain and reduce stress and anxiety for the patient, resulting in physiological changes, including:

  • Improved respiration
  • Lower blood pressure
  • Improved cardiac output
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Relaxed muscle tension

This form of therapy has been shown to have a significant effect on a patient’s perceived effectiveness of treatment, including pain reduction, relaxation, respiration rate, and lower levels of anxiety.

According to Professor Suzanne Hanser, EdD MT-BC at Berklee College of Music, there is a protocol for handling pain management through music therapy. “[It] is based on a cognitive behavioral model of therapy, which posits that new thoughts, feelings and body states may be conditioned to replace dysfunctional patterns. Specifically, a relaxed body and pleasant visual images may replace tension and worry when they are conditioned as a response to familiar, calming music. The conditioning process takes place when listening to this music is paired with deep relaxation through repeated practice. Over time, the music alone cues the response. The music therapy protocol is designed to perform several functions:

  • To direct attention away from pain or anxiety, distracting the listener with comforting music.
  • To provide a musical stimulus for rhythmic breathing.
  • To offer a rhythmic structure for systematic release of body tension.
  • To cue positive visual imagery.
  • To condition a deep relaxation response.
  • To change mood.
  • To focus on positive thoughts and feelings and to celebrate life.”

Mental Benefits

Hospitals and therapists use music therapy to change a patients’ mood.

Hospitals and therapists use music therapy to change a patients’ mood.

For young people in the hospital, simply being there can be a frightening and terrifying experience, let alone fighting cancer or another serious illness. One side-effect of being in the hospital is stress, which in itself can cause health problems. Some of the common symptoms of stress are:

Common effects of stress on your body

  • Headache
  • Muscle tension or pain
  • Chest pain
  • Fatigue
  • Upset stomach
  • Sleep problems

Common effects of stress on your mood

  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Lack of motivation or focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability or anger
  • Sadness or depression

Common effects of stress on your behavior

  • Overeating or undereating
  • Angry outbursts
  • Social withdrawal

One of the best remedies for stress is music. Music is often linked to moods and certain songs can make individuals feel a variety of emotions from happy, calm, energetic or relaxed.

According to Psychology Today, “All forms of music may have therapeutic effects, although music from one’s own culture may be most effective. In Chinese medical theory, the five internal organ and meridian systems are believed to have corresponding musical tones, which are used to encourage healing. Types of music differ in the types of neurological stimulation they evoke. For example, classical music has been found to cause comfort and relaxation while rock music may lead to discomfort. Music may achieve its therapeutic effects in part by elevating the pain threshold.”

Another incredible use of music therapy comes from helping children post-surgery. A research study from Northwestern University and Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago found that listening to music and audiobooks is a viable alternative to medication for reducing post-surgery pain in children.

Dr. Santhanam Suresh stated, “Audio therapy is an exciting opportunity and should be considered by hospitals as an important strategy to minimize pain in children undergoing major surgery. This is inexpensive and doesn’t have any side effects.” The study found children ages 9 to 14 who had undergone a variety of surgeries, responded strongly to music from artists like Taylor Swift, Rhianna, Beyoncé, David Guetta and Selena Gomez. The children who listened to music reported that they felt less pain; the patients noted how they were feeling by pointing to a chart of images with happy faces to grimacing faces.

The audio books that were a hit among children patients were:

  • Alice in Wonderland
  • James and the Giant Peach
  • The Complete Tales of Peter Rabbit
  • The Hobbit

Similar to the report from Psychology Today, tweens and teens may identify with this music compared to adult contemporary music because it is a part of their teenage culture.

In another study by Cochrane Collaboration, music therapy was also successful in helping cancer patients struggling with their treatment options. Patients who listened to their own music or worked with a trained therapist experienced a reduction of anxiety, pain and their mood and quality of life improved.

Who Qualifies as Music Therapists?

Music therapy is a critical part of many pediatric hospitals, including Boston Children’s Hospital and University of California San Francisco Benioff Children’s Hospital.

Over 72 colleges offer bachelors and doctorate degrees in music therapy. Berklee College of Music is one example of a university that offers education and degrees in music therapy. Not only do students learn music theory, history of music therapy and how to teach and assess skills, they are also trained in how to operate in clinical settings.

The road to becoming a music therapist isn’t easy, not unlike any other profession in the medical community. After individuals graduate from an accredited university, they are eligible to take a national examination administered by the Certification Board for Music Therapists (CBMT). After successful completion of the CBMT examination, graduates are issued the credential necessary for professional practice, Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC). In addition to the MT-BC credential, other recognized professional designations are Registered Music Therapists (RMT), Certified Music Therapists (CMT), and Advanced Certified Music Therapist (ACMT) listed with the National Music Therapy Registry.

Once a graduate becomes an official, registered music therapist, they work closely with patients to figure out objectives and goals. They work closely with hospital doctors to focus on pain, stress relief or whatever else the patient needs. The process begins with an assessment by the therapist who determines what the patient can do and what their needs are. Activities the therapist designs are made to achieve those goals through music.

Getting Behind Music Therapy

Improve physical and mental health through music therapy.

Improve physical and mental health through music therapy.

If your child or someone you know is in the hospital fighting cancer or any other ailment, music therapy is an incredible treatment option. Along with traditional treatment plans, music therapy offers benefits for physical and mental health. Music therapy is used to aid in physical discomfort by improving respiration, lowering blood pressure, improved cardiac output, reduced heart rate and relaxed muscle tension. For mental health, this form of therapy is great for reducing stress’ common negative side effects, such as emotional and behavioral problems. Through engaging with instruments or listening to their favorite songs and artists, music calms patients and can even help them recover from surgery more smoothly.

The ability to creatively express oneself in an emotional and frightening setting, such as a hospital, cannot be taken for granted. Read through our other blog posts and pages on our website to learn more about what music therapy is and how it is beneficial to children. If you would like to see more music therapy programs in hospitals to help children relieve pain and improve their emotional state, please consider donating to the Peterson Family Foundation so we can make it a reality.