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Music as Therapy

by Brian Abrams, PhD, MT-BC, LPC, LCAT, FAMI

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Music therapy is a process wherein a music therapist helps a person restore, maintain, or improve various dimensions of health and/or quality of life through music experiences and therapeutic relationships. Across a wide variety of clinical settings and populations, music therapists assess a person’s (or group’s) needs, formulate therapy goals and objectives, and facilitate therapeutic music experiences, all on an individualized basis.

The trained music therapist is musically skilled, clinically knowledgeable, aesthetically and artistically sensitive, empathic, self-aware, and ethically conscientious. Music therapy training is based upon a rigorous, multidisciplinary academic curriculum involving coursework in music, human anatomy, psychology, and music therapy. Training culminates in eligibility to earn the Music Therapist-Board Certified (MT-BC) credential. Many music therapists in the United States are members of the American Music Therapy Association, which provides standards for music therapy education, promotes ethical practice by AMTA members, and helps ensure the ongoing availability of quality music therapy services to the public.

Experiences in music therapy may involve music listening, performing, composing, or improvising, with the client and therapist assuming various roles, using voice and/or any number of instruments. The music itself (selected by the client, therapist, or both, collaboratively) may be live or recorded, and may be of any musical style, genre, or origin that meaningfully and effectively addresses an individual’s needs. Music therapy offers a number of physiological and psychosocial benefits for people diagnosed with cancer at various stages of survivorship.

Physiological Benefits
Music, as a vibrational sound form, is physically heard and felt on a tactile/kinesthetic level and, therefore, has a very direct connection to the body and its potential for well-being. Music can promote entrainment (or alignment and synchronization) between its own rhythmic structure and aspects of physiology that function rhythmically (for example, respiratory rate or heart beat).

Music has a very direct connection to the body and its potential for well-being.

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Dr. Brian Abrams

As an art form, music is aesthetically integrated in ways that can promote similar integration in the body (for example, balances between artistic tension and resolution that promote like balances in physiological processes). Music is processed on multiple levels and in highly complex ways within the brain, frequently involving aspects of physiological activation and regulation (such as in the areas of pain processing, oxygenation, and immune response). Personal and cultural meanings and memories embodied in music can elicit desired physiological changes. Moreover, active participation in music and music-making often involves physical movement (as in dancing, singing, or playing instruments), which offers certain physical health benefits.

Documented physiological benefits of music therapy for people with cancer include reduction of chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, reduction of fatigue (through live music making and improvisation), reduction of pain, and increased immunocompetence (such as decreased cortisol and increased immunoglobulins).

Psychosocial Benefits
Music, both as a symbolic art form and as a creative, imaginative way of being, embodies the myriad dimensions of both intrapersonal and interpersonal relationships. It can serve as an expression and carrier of emotions, personal meanings, and cultural or collective experiences. It can provide a safe container when one feels anxious or access to resources when one feels depressed. Expression of feelings through music can elicit immediate empathy from a listener where words fail. Music affords opportunities for conveying personal stories in aesthetically profound ways beyond factual narrative alone. It speaks directly and meaningfully to existential realities (such as facing life-threatening conditions). Moreover, it can engender community both within and across cultural boundaries.

Documented psychosocial benefits for people with cancer include reduction of anxiety and treatment distress (such as during chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or stem cell transplantation), improvement of mood and ability to cope (with fear, loss, grief, etc.), cultivation of greater sense of self and identity coherence, and improved general sense of well-being/quality of life (for people with cancer and their families).

While music itself can offer certain therapeutic benefits for people with cancer, only a qualified music therapist can provide music therapy services, as music therapists possess a unique domain of expertise, knowledge, and skill around the many ways music, health, and therapeutic relationships interrelate.

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Dr. Brian Abrams has been a music therapist since 1995, with clinical experience involving a wide range of populations. He is president of the Mid-Atlantic Region of the American Music Therapy Association and has served on the faculty at Utah State University, Immaculata University, and Montclair State University.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2008.