As William Congreve so perceptively wrote in 1695: Music has charms to soothe a savage breast… That helps to explain why listening to music has now become a recognized and respected tool in helping to heal the body and mind.
The idea of using music to benefit patients is not new (apparently Florence Nightingale believed in its soothing charms) and by the mid 1940s music therapy was on the way to becoming an organized clinical profession (1;2). Programs varied in terms of type and delivery but the general goal was to calm and/or distract patients and make their hospital stays more bearable. Over the years research has consistently demonstrated the benefits and effectiveness of music for patients (3;4) yet it continues to be an underused tool and experts wonder if there’s still a general lack of awareness (5).
A 2014 systematic review of 21 studies (including 19 good quality randomized controlled trials) provides recent evidence of the impact of music therapy, specifically on cancer patients (6). The studies included more than 1,600 participants, ranging in age from eight to 57, who were in hospital and undergoing surgery. The study groups listened to music before and/or after surgery and were later interviewed to assess their levels of anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue. Their scores were compared with those in the control groups, who received the usual care, listened to white noise, or were given headphones but no music.
What the research tells us
So were they soothed? Yes! Music therapy helped to reduce anxiety, pain and depression by a moderate amount and appeared to also slightly lower fatigue (6).
Those findings were backed up by evidence from a more recent systematic review of 73 randomized controlled trials that assessed the effects of listening to music on adults undergoing various kinds of surgery (5). Once again, music was shown to help reduce pain and anxiety and improve patient satisfaction. The review found that it did not matter whether the music was presented before, during or after surgery – all were effective.
It should be noted that there was no evidence that music listening shortened hospital stays. And there is no research yet on whether music listening helps to speed the healing of wounds or reduce infection rates, so clearly more research needs to be done!
While there are general guidelines for the type and tempo of therapeutic music for alleviating pain and anxiety (1), evidence from both reviews suggests patients may benefit more when they are able to choose the music themselves (5;6). That makes sense – if you prefer to listen to a classical orchestra, an earful of classic rock won’t necessarily have the desired effect.
Despite remarkable medical advancements surgery can be scary and time spent in hospital will likely be challenging. Music therapy is a safe, non-invasive and inexpensive complement to treatment (4).
So, if it helps take the edge off, then by all means – play that funky (or classical, country, R&B…) music!