Tune-In: The Healing Power of Music

The healing power of music has been well known for as long as men and women have played and enjoyed. Music's effect on the mind and body has been utilized as an official health discipline has played an important role in pain management and healing since World War I.

What is Music Therapy? 

Music therapy is more than just turning on a "happy" song or plunking away at the keyboard. Credentialed, professional music therapists design customized programs for their clients to help them accomplish individualized goals. They use music to assess their clients' emotional well-being, physical health, social functioning, communication and cognitive skills. Then they design music sessions that may include writing, performing, discussing, improvising, interpreting and listening to music as part of an interdisciplinary treatment plan, evaluation and/or follow up.

How Does Music Therapy Work?

Music therapy works similarly to cognitive behavioral therapy by changing how a patient thinks about their pain experience. It targets negative thoughts, feelings, and behaviors associated with pain and trains the patient to replace them with new positive thoughts and connotations. Music therapy deals with stress, muscle tension, anxiety, increased cardiac and respiratory rates and other natural responses to pain by teaching patients to respond to musical cues by relaxing, slowing their respiratory rate, and reducing their stress level. In turn, this reduces their perception of pain.

With practice, music therapy patients become conditioned to enter a deep relaxation state (similar to meditation) in response to familiar, calming music. After awhile, the music alone triggers deep relaxation. This can help patients who live with chronic pain replace previously learned pain responses with music and relaxation. 

Music therapy is designed to:

  • Distract patients with familiar music and direct their attention away from pain and anxiety
  • Provide musical stimulus for slow, deep, rhythmic breathing
  • Cue visual imagery
  • Condition a relaxation response
  • Improve mood, thought patterns and outlook

Does it Work?

Many studies support music therapy as beneficial for pain management. The American Cancer Society says clinical trials have demonstrated music therapy's benefit for short-term pain, including pain from cancer. Other studies suggest music helps decrease pain's intensity, when used with pain medication. In hospice patients, one study found that music therapy improved comfort, relaxation, pain control, and quality of life.

Do you have to see a music therapist to experience the healing powers of music? Not necessarily. Try your own experiment and see if music helps you deal with pain:

1. Choose a variety of upbeat, soothing, meditative, fast-paced and slow-paced pieces of music. Try all kinds of music until you find several styles you like--jazz, classical, opera, rock and popular music.

2. Notice how you feel when you play each one.

  • Does one piece or style lift your mood and another make you feel relaxed? 
  • Do particular songs or musical styles make your pain worse? 

3. Try dancing or moving to music and notice if it makes your pain feel better.

4. Pick something deeply relaxing (like Mozart or Beethoven) and practice deep breathing and meditation. Next time you feel your pain increasing, put on that song and see if you can trigger a relaxation response.

If you're not quite able to orchestrate your own music therapy for pain management program, ask your doctor to refer you to a professional music therapist in your area. 


American Music Therapy Association


American Cancer Society

Music Therapy