Humans 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.

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, and which approach is taken depends on the patient’s range of motion, ability to be involved cognitively and physically, and their interest in certain aspects of music like singing.

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. However, it is not necessary at all for a patient to understand how to play an instrument or read music to be involved in music therapy and to benefit from a more involved approach.

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 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.

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 cause the brain to reinterpret pain signals.

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.

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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, clients 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 like:

  • Improved respiration.
  • Lower blood pressure.
  • Better cardiac output and regular heart rhythm.
  • Slower, steadier heartbeat.
  • Relaxed 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 down 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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