Can music interventions benefit cancer patients?

Having cancer may result in intense emotional, physical and social suffering. Music therapy and music medicine interventions have been used to alleviate symptoms and treatment side effects in cancer patients. In music medicine interventions, the patient simply listens to pre-recorded music that is offered by a medical professional. Music therapy requires the implementation of a music intervention by a trained music therapist, the presence of a therapeutic process, and the use of personally tailored music experiences.

This review included 30 trials with a total of 1891 participants. The findings suggest that music therapy and music medicine interventions may have a beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, mood, quality of life, heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure in cancer patients. Most trials were at high risk of bias and, therefore, these results need to be interpreted with caution.

No evidence of a difference between music therapy or music medicine and control was found for depression, fatigue, or physical status. However, only a small number of trials investigated the effect of music on these outcomes. We could not draw any conclusions about the effect of music interventions on distress, body image, oxygen saturation level, immunologic functioning, spirituality, and communication outcomes because there were not enough trials looking at these aspects. Therefore, more research is needed.

The limited number of trials in this review prevented a comparison being made between music therapy interventions and pre-recorded music listening offered by medical personnel.

Authors' conclusions: 

This systematic review indicates that music interventions may have beneficial effects on anxiety, pain, mood, and QoL in people with cancer. Furthermore, music may have a small effect on heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. Most trials were at high risk of bias and, therefore, these results need to be interpreted with caution.

Read the full abstract...
Background: 

Having cancer may result in extensive emotional, physical and social suffering. Music interventions have been used to alleviate symptoms and treatment side effects in cancer patients.

Objectives: 

To compare the effects of music therapy or music medicine interventions and standard care with standard care alone, or standard care and other interventions in patients with cancer.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) (The Cochrane Library 2010, Issue 10), MEDLINE, EMBASE, CINAHL, PsycINFO, LILACS, Science Citation Index, CancerLit, www.musictherapyworld.net, CAIRSS, Proquest Digital Dissertations, ClinicalTrials.gov, Current Controlled Trials, and the National Research Register. All databases were searched from their start date to September 2010. We handsearched music therapy journals and reference lists and contacted experts. There was no language restriction.

Selection criteria: 

We included all randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and quasi-randomized trials of music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in patients with cancer. Participants undergoing biopsy and aspiration for diagnostic purposes were excluded.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted the data and assessed the risk of bias. Where possible, results were presented in meta analyses using mean differences and standardized mean differences. Post-test scores were used. In cases of significant baseline difference, we used change scores.

Main results: 

We included 30 trials with a total of 1891 participants. We included music therapy interventions, offered by trained music therapists, as well as listening to pre-recorded music, offered by medical staff. The results suggest that music interventions may have a beneficial effect on anxiety in people with cancer, with a reported average anxiety reduction of 11.20 units (95% confidence interval (CI) -19.59 to -2.82, P = 0.009) on the STAI-S scale and -0.61 standardized units (95% CI -0.97 to -0.26, P = 0.0007) on other anxiety scales. Results also suggested a positive impact on mood (standardised mean difference (SMD) = 0.42, 95% CI 0.03 to 0.81, P = 0.03), but no support was found for depression.

Music interventions may lead to small reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure. A moderate pain-reducing effect was found (SMD = -0.59, 95% CI -0.92 to -0.27, P = 0.0003), but no strong evidence was found for enhancement of fatigue or physical status. The pooled estimate of two trials suggested a beneficial effect of music therapy on patients' quality of life (QoL) (SMD = 1.02, 95% CI 0.58 to 1.47, P = 0.00001).

No conclusions could be drawn regarding the effect of music interventions on distress, body image, oxygen saturation level, immunologic functioning, spirituality, and communication outcomes.

Seventeen trials used listening to pre-recorded music and 13 trials used music therapy interventions that actively engaged the patients. Not all studies included the same outcomes and due to the small number of studies per outcome, we could not compare the effectiveness of music medicine interventions with that of music therapy interventions.