Listening to music or sessions with trained music therapists may benefit cancer patients. Music can reduce anxiety, and may also have positive effects on mood, pain and quality of life, a new Cochrane systematic review shows.

Music and music therapy are used in a variety of clinical settings. In the study investigators concentrated on trials with patients who had any form of cancer and were offered music or music therapy sessions. To improve psychological and physical well-being, the treatments vary from patients listening to pre-recorded music, to music therapists engaging them in music experiences.

Evidence from 1,891 patients taking part in 30 trials was examined, in which 13 trials trained music therapists, whereas the other 17 trials, patients listened to pre-recorded music. Among trials the length of time and how frequently patients participated in music sessions varied greatly. Results indicate that in comparison to standard treatments, anxiety was reduced by music significantly based on clinical anxiety scores. Some experiments reported greater beneficial effects than others, results also suggested that music therapy may also increase patients quality of life. Although not for depression, there was some advantage in music for mood and pain. Heart rate, respiratory rate and blood pressure saw smaller beneficial effects.

Lead researcher Joke Bradt of the Department of Creative Arts Therapies at Drexel University in Philadelphia, US., explained

“The evidence suggests that music interventions may be useful as a complementary treatment to people with cancer.

Music interventions provided by trained music therapists as well as listening to pre-recorded music both have shown positive outcomes in this review, but at this time there is not enough evidence to determine if one intervention is more effective than the other.”

Bradt continues

“It should be noted, however, that when patients can’t be blinded to an intervention, there is an opportunity for bias when they are asked to report on subjective measures like anxiety, pain mood and quality of life.”

The quality of evidence for some outcomes was low due to small numbers of trials that have been conducted, highlight investigators. Additional trials may help increase certainty in the discoveries and enhance the understanding of music’s effect on distress, body image and other aspects, for which research is presently too scarce to draw any conclusions.

Written by Grace Rattue