What is Music Therapy and Can It Treat Chronic Pain?

Let’s explore what music therapy is and how it can be used to treat chronic pain.


Music can be a powerful tool. When you hear a specific song, it can evoke a memory. Think about when you hear a song from your childhood or teen years. It takes you right back to that time and feels extremely familiar, whether that’s in a positive or negative way.

When you play an instrument or sing a song, it gives you a creative way to express your feelings. Music has the power to evoke so many emotions within us, from joy to sadness. Music can make you feel motivated and ready for action, or it can help you to relax, unwind, or compliment your meditation practice.

The power of music makes it a valid and popular therapy option to help people deal with their feelings, regulate their emotions, relieve stress, reduce pain and even more. 

The British Association of Music Therapy describes music therapy as, “an established psychological clinical intervention” which helps people “whose lives have been affected by injury, illness or disability through supporting their psychological, emotional, cognitive, physical, communicative and social needs.”

The origins of music therapy

Using music in a therapeutic way is far from a new concept. Even primitive humans used music as a pivotal part of their culture as this study explains. The study goes on to discuss that even in the bible, music is used to treat mental illness: “A biblical example for applying music in therapy was King Saul, who was treated for depression by harp playing”.

In 1560, patients in psychiatric wards were treated using music therapy. During the renaissance, an Italian musician started using music to treat a range of ailments, including using music for pain relief! Over the coming years, the use of music to treat mental and physical health continued to be explored, although not yet in a scientific way.

During World War 1 and 2, groups of musicians would visit hospitals and play their music to veterans who were physically injured or suffering mental trauma from the war. The veterans showed a positive response emotionally. Even progression with physical ailments was noticed. The doctors and nurses were so impressed by the difference the visiting musicians had made, that they asked the hospital to employ them to come and play for the patients regularly.

Over time it became more obvious that these musicians needed some training in how to use music in a more therapeutic way. In the following years a music therapy curriculum was developed. The science of music therapy became a topic of significant interest. The term ‘music therapy’ itself was introduced around 1950. Music therapists became licensed, valued therapists and more in-depth research on the topic took place.

What happens during music therapy?

Music therapists are qualified and registered like any other type of therapist. They work in a variety of settings including, “hospitals, schools, pupil referral units, day centres, hospices, care homes, therapy centres, prisons and in private practice” as the British Association for Music Therapy explains.

Music therapy sessions may be carried out in a one-to-one setting or in a group, depending on the needs of the patient. Like other therapy sessions, you will see the therapist regularly, often once a week for a set number of weeks. At the start of the sessions you’ll get to know your therapist a little bit and discuss what your goals are from therapy. Your therapist will form a treatment plan based on your health issues and how they feel they can help you. The therapist will likely talk to you about what genres of music you listen to and what your preferences are, so that they can tailor sessions to the individual more effectively.

From then on during sessions you may focus on singing songs, writing songs, playing instruments or listening to music. You don’t need to be musically skilled or have any prior experience with music. You may pick up some skills along the way, but the purpose of the sessions is not to teach you music, but rather to use the power of music to reach specific goals. 

For example, if you and your therapist agree that the goal of the session is to express your feelings about an injury, then you may be encouraged to write songs which express how you feel about that experience. Alternatively you may be asked to play an instrument in a way that lets you really release those emotions. If your goals are to promote relaxation and stress relief, you may lie in a comfortable position and listen to very calming music.

Your therapist may teach you how to use music to change and control your emotions. Music and the emotions it evokes has a physical effect on our heart and respiratory rate. This study explains how strong a connection there is between music and how our bodies react: “When we are exposed to slow beat music the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated decreasing the heart rate and while listening to fast beat music the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated and increases the heart rate.”

If you are feeling angry or stressed about your situation, your therapist may put on a calming song and ask you to really take notice of how that affects your mind and body. Once you are aware of the calming sensation the music can have on you, you will be able to use that in your day-to-day life.

Music therapists will often give you ‘homework’ to do between sessions, using music to face challenges in your daily life. If you find a task stressful or painful, such as washing the dishes, your homework may be to listen to a specific calming song during that task. The therapist will likely ask you to take note of how that helps you so you can discuss your progress in your next session. You will learn together what does and doesn’t work for you.

Many music therapists will work alongside other therapists or incorporate other treatment types to create a multidisciplinary approach. They may work as part of a pain management clinic for example, or alongside other psychological therapists. Their end goal is to get the best results for the patient.

What can music therapy be used for?

Anyone of any age and physical or mental ability can take part in music therapy. There are many benefits that can be gained from this type of therapy:

  • Creative expression of feelings

Music therapy can allow you to express your feelings, whether they are negative or positive. This can be extremely useful for those who have trouble voicing their feelings. Even for those of us who are able to talk about how we feel, having another outlet to express deep feelings in a creative way can feel freeing and cathartic.

  • Communication

For patients who struggle with communication, for example those who have difficulty with speech or are non verbal, music can provide a way to communicate.

  • Relaxation

Expressing feelings which may have been bottled up can allow an individual to feel much more at peace. Relaxing music can also be used to promote stress relief and create a calming atmosphere. Binaural beats in particular, have been shown to aid relaxation as the frequency and tones used are designed to have the brain enter the relaxed alpha brain wave frequency.

  • Social engagement

When music therapy is performed in a group setting, it can help patients who have been socially isolated to connect with others who may understand what they are going through. Attending therapy regularly allows them to maintain these regular social connections and learn new social skills. This can be very confidence-building and help them form other connections going forward.

  • Distraction and joy

Music therapy can provide a wonderful distraction from ill health and stress. It can provide an opportunity to just enjoy oneself and leave any worries outside of the therapy session. For some patients, the focus is to bring more joy into their world rather than to work on deeper issues.

  • Controlling emotions

Different beats and speeds of songs can help you to change your emotions and learn how to control them.

  • Improving cognitive skills

Music therapy can help to improve coordination and motor skills, as well as increasing levels of concentration and expanding attention span. 

  • Promoting better coping skills

As patients learn how to use music therapy during their sessions, they will then be able to utilize these skills in their daily life to cope with adversity and the challenges their ill health brings.

Music therapy can be used for a wide range of mental health and physical health problems including:

  • Austistic spectrum conditions
  • Learning disabilities
  • Mental illness
  • Neurological disorders
  • Dementia
  • Alizhimners
  • Palliative care
  • Addiction
  • Cancer
  • Cardiovascular disease
  • Before and during surgery
  • Chronic pain

Can music therapy treat chronic pain?

When we listen to music, endorphins are released as this article indicates. Endorphins are hormones which interact with receptors in our body and interrupt pain signals, relieving pain and giving a sense of wellbeing. They work in a similar way to opioids, but without the side effects. Essentially, endorphins act as the body’s natural painkillers.

Music has been used for acute pain (such as during cancer treatment as well as before, during and after surgery) for years now with much success. Many studies show that patients require less painkillers and have a more positive, determined attitude after surgery when music therapy has been used. This article emphasises just how effective this pain relieving effect can be, explaining that, “In three studies evaluating opioid requirements 2 hours after surgery, subjects exposed to music required 1.0 mg (18.4%) less morphine than unexposed subjects.”

This use of music in acute pain relief can also be translated into use for chronic pain. The same analgesic effect can be gained in the longer term, reducing the need for painkillers. When music therapy is combined with other chronic pain management techniques and treatments, patients can experience a significant reduction in pain and a real improvement in their levels of functioning.

Music has been scientifically proven to activate areas of the brain which regulate and inhibit pain. This means that listening to music can help our brain to control pain within our bodies and reduce it. Those of us with chronic pain often become disconnected or ‘dissociated’ from our bodies as a way of coping. This can mean that we lose self-awareness. Music therapy can help patients to become more aware of their body and reconnect with themselves. This awareness can help patients to learn how to manage their symptoms more effectively.

Distraction techniques (like using music) can be really valuable in day-to-day life. Distraction is one of the main techniques I use to cope with both my chronic pain and my bipolar disorder. Distracting myself helps to keep my focus on more positive things and stop me dwelling on worries or negativity. Whether it’s using music to distract me from pain during exercise, or singing a song to lift my mood and re-energize me when I take a break from work, I’ve found that music can be a real help.

A study which evaluated the utilization of music as therapy for chronic pain patients found that those who listened to music had a greater quality of life despite their pain. They found that music, “may provide an emotionally engaging distraction capable of reducing both the sensation of pain itself and the accompanying negative affective experience.“

Many patients find that they withdraw from social activities due to fear of worsening their pain or not feeling able to keep up with loved ones. This can result in loneliness which only serves to compound chronic pain symptoms, stress and negative emotions. Music therapy can give a sense of community and being involved, especially when carried in a group within which patients are able to meet others who are going through similar struggles.

Enabling chronic pain patients to have greater control over their emotions can help to break the stress and pain cycle. Stress worsens chronic pain, so when an individual is better able to deal with stress and keep their body and mind calm, they are able to lessen chronic pain symptoms.

Those of us with chronic pain often struggle with comorbid mental illness, which can in turn worsen our experience of pain and exacerbate symptoms. Music therapy is very effective at treating mental illness, therefore helping to treat chronic pain.

Chronic pain can cause cognitive problems including difficulty with thought processing, memory and attention span. Since music therapy can increase attention span and improve cognitive skills, this can have a positive impact on chronic pain patients.

Chronic pain often makes life very difficult. People in chronic pain can feel as though their condition has stolen the joy from their lives. Music therapy provides a beautiful distraction and reinserts some moments of joy into their world. This can allow patients to feel more hopeful and cheerful going forward. Having a more positive outlook in general means that patients are more likely to practice appropriate self-care and adaptive (helpful) pain management skills, as well as being more likely to keep up with treatments.

This study states that music therapy can be greatly helpful in treating chronic pain, concluding that: Music is one of a number of non-pharmacological methods of relieving chronic pain, along with exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy, that have been found to be effective in randomised controlled trials.

Try the music therapy options within our pain relief app – download links below!

References

  • Suguna S., Deepika K., (2017), “The effects of music on pulse rate and blood pressure in healthy young adults”. International Journal of Research in Medical Sciences,  Vol 5, No 12
  • Rosie Holden, John Holden, (2013), “Music: a better alternative than pain?” Br J Gen Pract. 2013 Oct; 63(615): 536.
  • Suzanne B. Hanser, EdD, MT-BC and Susan E. Mandel, PhD, MT-BC, (2015), “Music Therapy for Pain Management”. Practical Pain Management, Volume 12, Issue 5
  • Joke Bradt, PhD, Marisol Norris, MA, Minjung Shim, PhD, Edward J. Gracely, PhD, and Patricia Gerrity, PhD, (2016), “Vocal Music Therapy for Chronic Pain Management in Inner City African Americans: A Mixed Methods Feasibility Study”. J Music Ther. 2016 Summer; 53(2): 178–206.
  • Laura A. Mitchell, Raymond A.R. MacDonald, Christina Knussen, et al, (2007), “A survey investigation of the effects of music listening on chronic pain”. Psychology of Music, Vol 35, Issue 1.
  • Dobrzyńska, Ewelina & Cesarz, Helelna & Rymaszewska, Joanna & Kiejna, Andrzej. (2006). “Music Therapy – History, definitions and application.” Archives of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy. 8. 47-52.
  • British Association for Music Therapy, (2017), “What is music therapy?”
  • British Association for Music Therapy, (2017), “What is a music therapist?”
  • American Music Therapy Association, (2020), “History of music therapy”.

Please note: This article is made available for educational purposes only, not to provide personal medical advice.

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