Music therapy

Music therapy uses music and sound to help express emotions and improve emotional and physical well being.

Music therapy can help you to:

  • express your emotions
  • cope with symptoms of a disease and its treatment
  • relax and feel comfortable
  • improve your emotional and physical well being
  • develop self confidence and self esteem
  • develop or rekindle a sense of creativity

You don’t need to be musically talented to get something out of music therapy. It isn’t about learning to sing, or play an instrument.

In a music therapy session, you might:

  • listen to music
  • move to music
  • sing
  • make music with simple instruments
  • write and discuss song lyrics
  • use guided imagery alongside music

Music therapists work alongside other healthcare professionals such as doctors, nurses, speech therapists, psychologists and psychiatrists.

They may work with adults and children who have:

  • symptoms caused by physical illness or mental illness
  • side effects from cancer and its treatment
  • a terminal illness such as cancer

There are more than 600 registered music therapists in the UK. They work in various places, including NHS hospitals, hospices and nursing homes.

Why people with cancer use music therapy

One of the main reasons people with cancer use music therapy is because it makes them feel good.

Many of us know how calming and relaxing it can be to listen to a favourite piece of music. It can help people with cancer to cope with side effects such as:

  • pain
  • anxiety
  • depression
  • sickness

Music therapy can be a safe place for people to explore fear, anxiety, anger and the range of emotional responses to living with cancer.

Some studies show that music therapy can help children with cancer to cope by encouraging them to cooperate and communicate.

What music therapy involves

You work with your music therapist to plan a programme that suits your needs. You decide together how often you should have the therapy and how long each session will be.

Music therapy sessions usually last between 30 to 60 minutes. Your therapist might encourage you to play or listen to music at home between sessions.

You might have regular therapy for weeks or months. You may want to see your therapist on your own, or take part in group music therapy sessions.

Your relationship with your music therapist is very important. If you don’t feel comfortable with anything your therapist is doing, do talk to them about it.

Research into music therapy in cancer care

Music therapy cannot cure, treat or prevent any type of disease, including cancer. But some research shows that music therapy can help people with cancer reduce their anxiety. It can also help to improve quality of life and reduce symptoms and side effects.

We don’t yet know about all the ways music can affect the body. But we do know that when music therapy is used in the right way for each person, it can help them to feel better. To learn more about its full benefits, we need larger trials across a wider range of cancers.

Possible side effects

Music therapy is generally very safe and has no side effects. But very loud music or particular types of music might irritate some people or make them feel uncomfortable.

The music might trigger strong reactions or evoke memories which could range from pleasant to painful. A music therapist is trained to support patients during these processes.

How much it costs

Some cancer centres and hospitals in the UK offer music therapy free of charge. Ask if it’s available at the ward or centre where you have your treatment.

If it isn’t, your doctors or nurses might be able to direct you to voluntary organisations that do, or do so at a low cost.

You can arrange music therapy sessions privately through the British Association of Music Therapists. Sessions usually cost around £40 an hour. It is very important that you see a registered therapist.

Finding a music therapist

There are currently more than 600 music therapists in the UK. They are all trained musicians who have also studied music therapy at postgraduate level.

The title of music therapist is protected by UK law. In the UK, music therapists with a professional qualification must register with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC).

You can only call yourself a music therapist if you have registered with the HCPC and taken a course that they recognise.

Questions you might ask

  • How many years of training have you had?
  • How long have you been practising?
  • Have you had training for treating and supporting people with cancer?
  • Do you have indemnity insurance? (in case of negligence)

Useful links and organisations

There are a number of different organisations that music therapists can join.