Benefits of Music Therapy in Medical Settings

Humans have created music since before recorded history.

The way we create and listen to music is intricately tied to how our brains work. Certain tones, melodies, beats, and lyrics can invoke intense feelings and memories.

Many doctors are harnessing the power of music to help their patients in clinical settings, from the emergency room to general practitioners’ waiting rooms. Background music has long been used to influence patrons’ emotional response to different settings, but music therapy is a growing field that involves directly interacting with music to improve medical outcomes.

Experts say music therapy is practiced in 42,000 healthcare facilities, including hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. Some healthcare organizations are taking the concept seriously.

In a study from University Hospitals Connor Whole Health, researchers found that the most common issues addressed by musical therapy included mental health (39.4%), cardiovascular disease (11.8%), and respiratory conditions (9.9%). Keep reading to find out why these interventions are often used and why they could be helpful.

What Is Music Therapy?

The new field of musical therapy addresses symptoms associated with several cognitive, social, emotional, and behavioral issues in all ages. Both listening to and creating music are approaches used in music therapy. The approach taken depends on the client’s range of motion, ability to be involved cognitively and physically, and their interest in certain aspects of music like singing.

There are many benefits of music therapy.

  • It provides an emotional outlet.
  • It offers a distraction during treatment.
  • It improves overall physical rehabilitation.
  • It facilitates movement and the connection between the brain and body.
  • It increases motivation to engage in treatment.

Music therapists may work in one-on-one settings, in group therapy, and in hospitals or clinics. They may have a client listen to relaxing music, play a simple beat on a drum, sing songs, or work on learning a musical instrument.

It is not necessary for a client to understand how to play an instrument or read music to be involved in music therapy.

How Does Music Therapy in Hospitals Work?

Music therapy is defined as tailored interventions initiated and delivered by a qualified music therapist. This type of care is very different than simply playing music. It’s a scientific method used to create measurable results.

To deliver music therapy, people must have a bachelor’s degree in music therapy. They must also complete an internship and sit for a board certification exam in music therapy. At that moment, they can have credentials to deliver music therapy.

According to the American Musical Therapy Association Professional Advocacy Committee, professionals are required to create individual programs for their clients. That can mean the following:

  • Crafting the goals for therapy
  • Specifying the procedures that would help the client get to the goal
  • Identifying how progress will be measured
  • Determining which instruments and music would be included

One key aspect of music therapy is the active involvement of the patient. Their input is valued; it's crucial. The plan is assessed regularly, and if it’s not working for the people involved, it's changed. This approach empowers the patient and ensures their needs are met.

What Effects Does Music Therapy Have?

People undergoing medical treatment in all kinds of settings can benefit from some level of music therapy. Studies have shown that listening to or playing music has helped to alleviate problems associated with the following:

  • Chronic pain
  • Respiratory issues
  • Physical rehabilitation
  • Diabetes
  • Headaches
  • Cardiac conditions
  • Stress before and after surgery
  • Pregnancy and childbirth

Music therapy understands that music is a form of sensory stimulation that can provoke specific emotions and memories. When used in a therapeutic context, music can invoke familiarity, security, and predictability where there may not otherwise be a sense of control or safety.

Music therapy sessions provide opportunities for:

  • Stress reduction and alleviating anxiety.
  • Managing pain and discomfort without pharmaceuticals.
  • Lifting emotions and mood.
  • Encouraging active and positive participation in treatment.
  • Decreasing the length of a hospital stay.
  • Emotional intimacy with friends, family, and caregivers.
  • Relaxation for everyone in a family unit when illness may have caused stress.
  • Meaningful time spent together creating something fun.

Researchers say that music therapy in hospitals can be helpful in improving a patient’s mental state. For example, in a study that included 150 patients over a six-month period, researchers found that patients were highly receptive to the idea, and they were very satisfied with it. The researchers said it had a positive effect on anxiety and pain.

In a second study of people living with dementia, researchers provided music therapy and measured aggression levels on those days. The researchers found that music therapy seemed to lift patients' moods and reduce their agitation levels. The benefits lasted throughout the day and improved the overall environment of the ward.

Pain Management and Music Therapy

One of the most important uses for music therapy in any clinical setting, especially hospitals, is in pain management. Music does not just distract the mind from pain, as some clinicians have theorized, but it can also cause the brain to reinterpret pain signals.

In a study of music therapy published in 2019, researchers examined patients who received the therapy after orthopedic procedures. They found that music can significantly relieve pain and reduce anxiety levels.

In a second study, researchers examined 778 women and their pain levels during delivery. They found that pain intensity scores were lower in women provided with music therapy, especially in women who were giving birth for the first time.

A 1988 study found that music and pain have some similar impact on the brain. They both involve the limbic system at some point, which is associated with emotional synthesis. The study suggested that, if music’s vibrations can be brought into close resonance with those of pain, the psychological perception of pain might be overridden.

Music Therapy for Hospitals

Since music therapy is being shown to improve healing and stress levels in many people, doctors and therapists are bringing this treatment into hospital settings to improve patient outcomes. Music therapy can be used for both short-term and long-term treatment, from an overnight stay to returning regularly to the hospital for recurring therapies.

Music therapy offered in hospitals can come in many forms, such as:

  • Headphones and audio devices like an iPod to listen to music during treatment.
  • Bedside in-person musicians who improvise music.
  • Support group meetings to sing or play music together.
  • Classes to learn composition or a new instrument.
  • Groups discussing the meaning and poetry of lyrics.
  • Ambient music to provide emotional support to family members or friends while a loved one undergoes treatment.

With more studies of music therapy’s psychological and physiological efficacy, more hospitals are adopting variations of this treatment across many specialties. If you are a patient at a hospital and want access to music therapy during your treatment, ask your doctor or social worker for help organizing this option.

Music therapy might be an available therapy for people undergoing these types of treatments:

  • Intensive care
  • Surgery
  • General medicine
  • Pediatrics
  • Pulmonology
  • Cardiology
  • Pain management
  • Oncology
  • Inpatient psychiatric treatment
  • Palliative care
  • Hospice care

One medical study reported that doctors noticed improvements in their patients’ emotional and behavioral experience, citing that music therapy seemed to offer them a sense of greater control over their treatment outcomes.

Children Benefit From Music Therapy in Hospital Settings

Music therapy is frequently offered in children’s hospitals because music can greatly improve mood, memory, and other areas of a child’s growing brain.

Children struggling with severe illnesses requiring hospitalization often find their lives disrupted, so adding music therapy can help them from multiple perspectives. For example, music therapy can:

  • Stimulate a child’s growing brain to help them learn new, complex skills.
  • Help a child maintain improvements in memory, cognition, and hand-eye coordination.
  • Support other learning that might otherwise be disrupted and lost due to treatment and illness.
  • Reduce cognitive decline that might be a side effect of treatment.
  • Improve socialization for children who might otherwise be isolated due to medical treatment.
  • Provide emotional support for children whose first language is not English.

While music therapy is not offered as a default treatment in most children’s hospitals, parents, guardians, or children themselves can request music therapy services.

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A study conducted in 1992 investigated music therapy, alongside deep breathing, pharmaceutical intervention, and guided imagery as methods of controlling pain. The study supported the “gate control theory” of pain, in which distraction and changing emotional associations that may trigger stress could greatly alleviate pain in a noninvasive way. Music was found to be more effective than meditation techniques like guided imagery and deep breathing, although they were all effective alongside prescription painkillers.

A 1996 study investigated reports from Parkinson’s patients, people who had suffered strokes, and women’s recovery after childbirth. Listening to music, singing, and dancing were all associated with improved outcomes in all these experiences, from engaging the brain to reducing pain sensations and speeding physical recovery.

A survey of young cancer patients in 1998 found that music therapy was a great way to manage chronic pain because music competed with the pain impulses in the central nervous system. Music therapists were recommended to let their clients choose music they preferred during therapy sessions as a way of expressing feelings about their experiences with cancer and treatment.

Mood, Stress, and Emotional Regulation With Music Therapy

Music therapy has been found to aid not just in pain management, but in other important aspects of stress reduction. For example, music therapy can:

  • Improve respiration.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Improve cardiac output and regular heart rhythm.
  • Promote a slower, steadier heartbeat.
  • Relax muscle tension.

A lower level of anxiety during treatment can make patients feel better about their course of treatment. This can, in turn, reduce the days in hospital, improve healing, reduce the number of required therapy or doctors’ visits, and decrease the amount of required pharmaceuticals.

For chronic conditions, including pain or dementia, music therapy can slow the progression of symptoms and improve mood. Easing mental stress can lead to better physical health, including less muscle tension, chest pain, exhaustion or fatigue, sleep trouble, and upset stomach.

Behavioral issues, including appetite changes, social withdrawal, and angry outbursts will also be improved with music therapy, as stress releases and is managed better.

A 2008 report found that music therapy can ease mental illnesses like depression. In four out of five studies, patients receiving treatment for depression that included music therapy reported a decrease in depressive symptoms compared to those who did not receive music therapy.

Improvised singing and painting to music showed the greatest improvements in depression symptoms compared to other types of music therapy, including listening passively to favorite songs. However, all kinds of music therapy can be beneficial for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

Overall improvements in stress, mood, and quality of life are reported in numerous other studies. Bringing in music therapists is one great way for clinicians, from general practitioners to hospital workers, to help patients in recovery and those who are undergoing treatment for conditions.

Finding evidence-based organizations that certify music therapists can help you, as a clinician, refer patients to appropriate providers. But even taking steps like offering soothing background music in the waiting room can be a form of music therapy, which can improve long-term outcomes.


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