How Music Therapy Works

Music therapy has been shown to reduce pain and anxiety and boost moods.

music therapy

Kubicek in a music therapy session. Photo by Steven Gardner, M.D., provided

A seriously ill patient gets used to seeing many things during his or her hospital stay: IVs, medications, doctors in white coats. And, sometimes, guitars, drums, and sheet music.

Once an alternative method, music therapy is becoming increasingly integrated into medical care, so much so that it is now used for ailments ranging from cancer and psychiatric illness to babies born prematurely. The therapy builds on traditional counseling practices by incorporating, depending on the patient’s needs and interests, things like instrument playing, singing, and listening to music, helping to unleash creativity, reduce discomfort, and enhance the overall experience of being in the hospital. And it’s not just an untested, new age therapy—the experts say it works.

“Physiologically and neurologically, music therapy is processed throughout your entire brain. It has this really great power on healing, both emotional healing, physical healing, social healing,” explains Lorrie Kubicek, a certified music therapist at Massachusetts General Hospital’s HOPES program. “Then there is the idea that music is kind of a universal phenomenon: Everyone has some idea of music, from newborn infants to preborn infants, all the way through to the very elderly.”

Not to mention, Kubicek says, the therapy has actually been proven to reduce a patient’s perception of pain, according to something called the Gate Control Theory of Pain. “Your brain can only perceive 100 percent of any one thing,” Kubicek explains. “So if you really focus your brain on music it can decrease by 50 percent the amount of pain you feel. It doesn’t work all the time, because if that pain is so intense, it’s not going to work, but [it works] for a great deal of pain.”

It doesn’t stop there. Dr. Suzanne Hanser, founding chair of the Berklee music therapy department, says music therapy, by calming patients, can positively affect heart rate, blood pressure, and vital signs. “When we enable people to focus on music that’s very meaningful to them,” she says, “they’re going to respond to treatment differently, much better. They’re going to be able to heal in a more constructive way.” On top of that, Hanser says music therapy can be pivotal to soothing anxiety and depression. “We can manipulate the auditory environment, which affects [patients’] imagery, which affects their memories, which affects the associations, which affects the mood,” Hanser says. “All these things can be changed in a single moment and over time with music. It’s a continuous mechanism.”

Then there’s the day-to-day element. Brian Jantz, a certified music therapist at Boston Children’s Hospital, explains that improving a patient’s overall quality of life is also a major goal of music therapy. “We’re coming in with drums and guitars and things that hopefully the patients are attracted to as opposed to things they’re fearful of,” he says. “In that way, it’s really non-invasive, it’s non-threatening.”

Jantz adds that helping patients—especially children—find a creative, social outlet also helps with feelings of anxiety and isolation. “It certainly enhances their mood when you see patients laughing and sharing songs with other patients around their age,” he notes. “It certainly helps with mood elevation, with stress reduction. There’s opportunities there for supporting their social skills, and for some of the patients who are there longer-term it’s extremely important to support their social skills.”

But above all, Jantz says, music therapy is a way for Children’s patients to take something positive from a potentially very traumatic experience. “[We want to] in some way  normalize, if that’s even a possibility, the experience of being in the hospital,” he says. “It’s a real silver lining when they think back to their time in the hospital and the challenges that they might have been facing, but then that they had this opportunity to make music.”