According to new analysis, music and instrument based therapies appear to have incredible effects on cancer patients’ pain levels, mood, and certain vital signs such as blood pressure. This may lead the way to an addition to standard treatment practices and a complement to medication doses alone.

Joke Bradt, Ph.D., an associate professor of creative arts therapies at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania led the study. Bradt and her colleagues went back and reviewed 30 studies that included 1,891 adults and children with cancer. In 17 of the studies, the people listened to prerecorded music. The participants in the remaining studies took part in various guided music therapies, which in some cases included singing, playing the piano or creating rhythms alongside a therapist.

Measured via targeted questionnaires, both the sessions with music therapists and the prerecorded music reduced patients’ anxiety levels and improved quality of life, better than the standard treatments. Music therapy also improved pain and mood, as well as blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate.

Bradt stated:

“I strongly believe that the beauty of music can bring renewed hope for patients and their loved ones and can energize them.”

For decades and generations, researchers have studied music-based therapies as a treatment for a wide range of chronic, painful, and emotionally distressing diseases, including cancer.

Well that’s great, but does reggae work better than classical music for example? Bradt says there isn’t enough evidence to determine what type of music intervention was most effective, but therapies involving music are likely to be most successful when they are tailored for people according to their musical tastes and their ability to participate in actually music making.

Patients were given a choice between several different genres (new age, classical, rock, country). What works for one person, Bradt says, may depend on his or her taste and background.

Robert Zatorre, Ph.D., a cognitive neuroscientist at McGill University, in Montreal continues:

“It’s been known for a very long time that music can influence mood. That’s why lullabies exist to calm down babies who won’t sleep.”

There has been a fair amount of interest recently in the fact that children are, from birth, ‘wired for sound’ – or, more specifically wired for music. There are specific neural connections which are made when a child listens to music of any kind, instrumental or vocal. These connections are, apparently, not made in any other way and can only be made in the early years. Once made, some researchers believe this neural ‘wiring’ may be used to support some other sense, such as visual or verbal. The more connections that are made, the more capacity in the brain is opened up for use. The conclusion has been drawn that the earlier music is introduced, the greater the potential for learning.

Zatorre adds:

“The cost involved with music is very small compared to other kinds of interventions. How well it works say, compared to drugs is another question, but the side effects are very minimal as well. The worst thing that can happen [when] someone doesn’t like music is that they can turn it off.”

However, because the outcomes measured in these studies are so subjective, additional research will be needed to confirm that factors besides the music aren’t influencing the results.

Written by Sy Kraft