Let the music play: The role of music in cancer care

The Bottom Line

  • Over their lifetime, it is estimated that 2 in 5 Canadians will receive a cancer diagnosis.
  • Throughout one’s cancer journey, a host of physical and psychological impacts can be experienced.
  • Music-based strategies may help to improve psychological outcomes, such as anxiety, depression, and hope, and physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue in adults with cancer. Boosts to quality of life may also be seen, but there may be no impact on mood and distress. 
  • Interested in trying a music-based strategy? Consult your healthcare team on whether this is an appropriate add-on to your care plan and how to integrate it safely. 

Whether directly or indirectly, cancer has touched or will touch many of our lives. In 2020, there were over 18 million cases of cancer globally (1). Closer to home, it is estimated that over their lifetime, 2 in 5 Canadians will receive a cancer diagnosis (2).

Be it from cancer itself, the side effects of treatment, or the news of this new battle that one is about to face, a cancer diagnosis brings with it a variety of physical and psychological outcomes. Just a few of these include difficulty breathing, sleeping, and eating, extreme tiredness, distress, depression, nausea, and vomiting (3-6). Both individually and together, these outcomes work to influence one’s overall quality of life (3). Given the impacts, strategies that support people along their cancer care journey are needed.

Music is a non-drug strategy found to improve cognitive health, sleep, and walking speed, as well as ease hospital stays (7-13). Its role in cancer care has also been of great interest, particularly with respect to its impact on outcomes such as anxiety, depression, pain, fatigue, hope, mood, and distress, as well as quality of life.

A systematic review was conducted to assess the effects of music-based strategies, specifically music therapy and music medicine—as add-ons to standard care. For those unfamiliar, music therapy involves assessment, treatment, and evaluation by a trained music therapist, as well as experiences with music that are tailored to an individual. On the other hand, music medicine often involves simply listening to pre-recorded music provided by a medical professional (3).

So, should people living with cancer press the play button?

What the research tells us

The review found that in adult cancer patients, music-based strategies implemented alongside standard care may have the potential to reduce anxiety, depression, pain, and fatigue, as well as increase hope and quality of life, compared to standard care alone. These reductions and increases may vary in size. For example, reductions may be large for anxiety, moderate to large for pain, small to moderate for depression, and slight for fatigue, while increases may be large for hope and moderate for quality of life. Other main outcomes like mood and distress may not see any benefits with the use of music-based strategies.

Taking a closer look, we see that specific music-based strategies may have differing effects. For instance, the positive findings for fatigue and quality of life may only be relevant for music therapy and not music medicine. What is more, music therapy seems to lead to more consistently positive findings for anxiety, depression, and pain, compared to music medicine.

Although music-based strategies show promise in cancer care, more research is needed as there is considerable uncertainty with this body of evidence.

Although no negative side effects were reported within the review, and generally music-based interventions are thought to be relatively safe, it is always important to consider your own health status, preferences, needs, limitations, and the setting you are in while incorporating a new strategy (3). Factors like music type, volume, and if/when headphones are appropriate are examples of some considerations. If you are interested in trialing this complementary strategy, talk to your healthcare team about whether it is a good option for you and how to best integrate it into your care plan.

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Author Details


  1. World Cancer Research Fund international. Worldwide cancer data. [Internet] 2022. [cited May 2023]. Available at https://www.wcrf.org/cancer-trends/worldwide-cancer-data
  2. Canadian Cancer Society. Cancer statistics at a glance. [Internet] 2023. [cited May 2023]. Available at https://cancer.ca/en/research/cancer-statistics/cancer-statistics-at-a-glance
  3. Bradt J, Dileo C, Myers-Coffman K, et al. Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in people with cancer. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2021; 10:CD006911. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006911.pub4.
  4. King CR, Hinds BS. Quality of life from nursing and patient perspectives: Theory, research and practice. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett Publishers, 2003.
  5. Massie MJ. Prevalence of depression in patients with cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst Monogr. 2004; 32:57-71. doi: 10.1093/jncimonographs/lgh014.
  6. Norton TR, Manne SL, Rubin S, et al. Prevalence and predictors of psychological distress among women with ovarian cancer. J Clin Oncol. 2004; 22(5):919-926. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2004.07.028.
  7. Dorris JL, Neely S, Terhorst L, et al. Effects of music participation for mild cognitive impairment and dementia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021; 69(9):2659-2667. doi: 10.1111/jgs.17208.
  8. Hole J, Hirsch M, Ball E, et al. Music as an aid for postoperative recovery in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2015; 386:1659-1671.
  9. Kühlmann AYR, de Rooij A, Kroese LF, et al. Meta-analysis evaluating music interventions for anxiety and pain in surgery. Br JJ Surg. 2018; 105(7):773-783. doi: 10.1002/bjs.10853. 
  10. Sakamoto JT, Ward HB, Vissoci JRN, et al. Are nonpharmacologic pain interventions effective at reducing pain in adult patients visiting the emergency department? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2018. doi: 10.1111/acem. 
  11. Nascimento LR, de Oliveira CQ, Ada L, et al. Walking training with cueing of cadence improves walking speed and stride length after stroke more than walking training alone: A systematic review. J Physiother. 2015; 61(1):10-15. doi: 10.1016/j.jphys.2014.11.015. 
  12. McGee WL, Clark I, Tamplin J, et al. Music interventions for acquired brain injury. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017; 1:CD006787. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006787.pub3. 
  13. Wang C, Li G, Zheng L, et al. Effects of music intervention on sleep quality of older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2021; 59:102719. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2021.102719.

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