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A Playlist for Healing

by Dawn McDougal Miller, MME, MT-BC, FAMI

Wellness image

Music can be a wonderful sup­portive tool for people with cancer. In fact, many cancer survivors say that listening to music while they’re receiving chemotherapy or radiation therapy changes the entire feeling of the room from clinical and impersonal to comfortable, relaxing, and healing.

When working with cancer survivors, music therapists often use a concept called the iso principle. Using this principle, a therapist plays music that matches a person’s initial mental or physical state, then gradually changes the tempo and beat of the music to ease the person toward their desired emo­tional state. But you don’t have to be a music therapist to make use of the iso principle. If a music therapist isn’t avail­able at your cancer center, you can still create a healing environment with mu­sic by making your own iso playlists.

Fast-to-Slow Playlist
When you’re feeling stressed or anxious or experi­encing pain, you may not be able to listen to slow, relaxing music. So the first few songs on your fast-to-slow iso play­list should have strong, steady beats, with tempos of approximately 120 beats per minute. These should be “feel good” songs that you know well and enjoy – music that makes you want to dance.

Next, gradually slow things down by adding medium-tempo songs to the playlist. As you listen to these slightly slower songs, you may notice your breath­ing and thoughts beginning to slow down and your muscles starting to relax.

When listening to your fast-to-slow playlist, your body, mind, and spirit will engage with the fast, rhythmic music, and then gradually become more receptive to relaxation with the slow, soothing music.

Author of Article photo

Dawn McDougal Miller

Finally, add several relaxing, slow-tempo (50 – 70 beats per minute) songs to the playlist. As you listen to these songs, take deep breaths and feel the tension in your body melt away. When listening to your fast-to-slow playlist, your body, mind, and spirit will engage with the fast, familiar, rhythmic music, and then gradually become more re- ceptive to relaxation with the slow, soothing music.

Slow-to-Fast Playlist
If you’re ex­periencing fatigue and would like to have more energy, you can use the iso prin­ciple to create a slow-to-fast iso playlist. The process is similar to that of creating a fast-to-slow playlist, but in reverse. Begin the playlist with slow music to match your current, low-energy state. Then add songs that gradually increase in tempo and have stronger beats. This slow-to-fast iso playlist may help to energize you.

Mood-Elevating Playlist
A slow-to-fast tempo playlist can also be helpful in lifting your spirits if you’re feeling down. Start the playlist with slow, sad ballads that will give you a chance to express your feel­ings. (Sometimes we all need to have a good cry.) Then select songs with in­creasingly positive messages and upbeat tempos. Include songs that have a spe­cial meaning to you and help you feel supported.

Make Your Playlists in Advance
Ideally, you should make your playlists in advance so they’re ready for you to listen to anytime you need them. You may even want to ask a family member or friend who understands your music preferences to create an iso playlist for you. A typical iso playlist should last about 20 to 40 minutes. However, a lon­ger playlist lasting one or two hours may be helpful at times.

Background Music or Headphones?
In the treatment setting, if you want to be able to converse freely with your healthcare team, you can play your music through a device with a speaker. This way, the music becomes part of the healing environment in the room.

If you’re experiencing extreme stress, anxiety, fatigue, or pain, you may want to listen to music through headphones, which will allow the mu­sic to be your sole focus. For example, if you’re anxious about an upcoming medical procedure, crank up the vol­ume (to a comfortable level) and fully immerse yourself in the music instead of focusing on the anxiety-provoking procedure. As your anxiety decreases, lower the volume a bit and allow your­self to relax.

Music can give you a sense of peace, keep you company, and foster deep breathing and relaxation. Listening to iso playlists is a low-cost, low-tech complement to cancer treatment that can support you through your journey, with no negative side effects.

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Dawn McDougal Miller is a board-certified music therapist and the music therapy in­ternship director at Park Nicollet Health Services in Minneapolis, MN. During her 27 years as a music therapist, Dawn has created several music therapy positions in hospitals and hospice programs throughout the Twin Cities.

For more information about music therapy, visit the American Music Therapy Association web­site,

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2014.