Healing through music

Beverly Merz

Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch

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The last time I had a mammogram, I got a big surprise — and it was a good one. A string quartet was playing just outside the doors of the breast imaging center, and my thoughts immediately shifted from “What are they going to find on the mammogram?” to “Is that Schubert, or Beethoven?” By the time my name was called, I had almost forgotten why I was there.

The unexpected concert was the work of Holly Chartrand and Lorrie Kubicek, music therapists and co-coordinators of the Environmental Music Program at Massachusetts General Hospital. But bringing music to hospital corridors is just a sideline for music therapists. The majority of their time is spent using music to help patients accomplish specific goals, like recovering their speech after a stroke or reducing the stress of chemotherapy.

Chartrand is a vocalist and graduate of Berklee College of Music. She decided to become a music therapist when she realized that she could use music to support others just as it had supported her throughout her life. “The favorite part of my job is seeing how big an impact music can have on someone who isn’t feeling well,” she says.

What is music therapy?

Music therapy is a burgeoning field. Those who become certified music therapists are accomplished musicians who have deep knowledge of how music can evoke emotional responses to relax or stimulate people, or help them heal. They combine this knowledge with their familiarity with a wide variety of musical styles to find the specific kind that can get you through a challenging physical rehab session or guide you into meditation. And they can find that music in your favorite genre, be it electropop or grand opera.

Music therapists know few boundaries. They may play music for you or with you, or even teach you how to play an instrument. On a given day, Chartrand may be toting a tank drum, a ukulele, or an iPad and speakers into a patient’s room. “Technology gives us so much access to all kinds of music that I can find and play almost any kind of music you like,” she says.

The evidence for music therapy

A growing body of research attests that that music therapy is more than a nice perk. It can improve medical outcomes and quality of life in a variety of ways. Here’s a sampling:

Improves invasive procedures. In controlled clinical trials of people having colonoscopies, cardiac angiography, and knee surgery, those who listened to music before their procedure had reduced anxiety and a reduced need for sedatives. Those who listened to music in the operating room reported less discomfort during their procedure. Hearing music in the recovery room lowered the use of opioid painkillers.

Restores lost speech. Music therapy can help people who are recovering from a stroke or traumatic brain injury that has damaged the left-brain region responsible for speech. Because singing ability originates in the right side of the brain, people can work around the injury to the left side of their brain by first singing their thoughts and then gradually dropping the melody. Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords used this technique to enable her to testify before a Congressional committee two years after a gunshot wound to her brain destroyed her ability to speak.

Reduces side effects of cancer therapy. Listening to music reduces anxiety associated with chemotherapy and radiotherapy. It can also quell nausea and vomiting for patients receiving chemotherapy.

Aids pain relief. Music therapy has been tested in patients ranging from those with intense acute pain to those with chronic pain from arthritis. Overall, music therapy decreases pain perception, reduces the amount of pain medication needed, helps relieve depression, and gives people a sense of better control over their pain.

Improves quality of life for dementia patients. Because the ability to engage with music remains intact late into the disease process, music therapy can help to recall memories, reduce agitation, assist communication, and improve physical coordination.

How to find a music therapist

If you’re facing a procedure or illness, or just want relief from the stresses of daily life or help sticking to an exercise program, a music therapist may be able to help you. You can find one on the website of the American Music Therapy Association.


  1. Laxmi Global

    I came to know that from the music we can get relief from pain. it is a nice technique

  2. Jim Gardiner

    The power of music brought me through radiation treatment for cancer. Every day while in the machine I listened to meditation music and when the treatment was completed I went out to the cancer center lobby and played the piano. It was a great blessing to me.

  3. Len Allman

    As the Director of a New Horizons Band & Orchestra, I’ve come to believe that a musical instrument is like an exercise bike for your brain.

  4. Helen Christine Bloomquist

    I started playing four woodwind instruments in the summer of 1954. I played from then thru high school and college. Then I started playing with community groups. My four instruments are flute, piccolo, English horn (alto/tenor oboe), and oboe. If you look for community music groups in Texas, you will find many such groups. Presently, I’m playing piccolo and flute in a band that is in Livingston, Texas.

    I’m retired, but can be ready to scream at times over multiple concerns at once or “just get away” !
    The LACB rehearses for 2 hours on Monday evenings. I can get there exhausted and/or climbing the walls. When rehearsal is finished, I’m relaxed, at peace with the world, renewed, and a new person – at peace with the world, and connected with God (Creator/Jesus/Father) ! I also play at church with exact results. For some reason, my inner-self, always connects as though in prayer, and I end up “totally renewed” !

  5. gayle

    Today a harpist came to play in the early childhood school where I teach art to children with all kinds of special needs. I observed a group of classes (3 year olds) listening to this musician play. At the very start there was lots of fidgeting and chattery noise. Several of the autistic students had their hands over their ears. Then shortly into the performance, I observed an audience of 3 year olds completely still and entranced. The autistic students with hands over ears suddenly released their hands. One child clapped and yelled out “Yeah” while she played. When I left the room, I too felt such serenity. Music is definitely healing.

  6. Mamadou NDIAYE ''LYNX''Master drummer from Senegal

    I really appreciate that article which make me really comfortable to pursue my research about music healing,music therapy.
    I use to play my drum to accompany healing ceremonies where drumming have an important role…..
    Thank you

  7. Bill Niland

    I am blessed to play (tenor sax) in the Harvard Summer Pops Band despite 14 operations for jaw cancer. I have long held the belief that music heals. While I have a background in jazz, R&B, and other types, I find particular comfort in Doo Wop??? I speculate the new notes created by blending of accapella voice captures a part of my brain where pain may reside..and Doo Wop has it’s way with me. Very glad to see Harvard affiliated confirmation..

    • james wilson

      I believe we have similar inclinations. I am emotionally transported by Doo Wop. I also have a lot of satisfaction and relaxation from listening to piano and harp. Richard Clayderman is a favorite piano player with a deft key touch. Bronn Journey is a favored harpist and my all time favorite song is Mull of Kintyre but it must be the version by Franck Pourcel.

  8. Anku aggarwal

    yes music is a natural healer ,, it heals me everyday whenever i get depressed its just amazes me.

  9. Hirene Tuason

    Praise and Worship Song healed emotionally, physically and spiritual.

  10. Karren McCallum

    Music heals me every day of listening to music, music has helped me get through my rough days from the time of my husbands suicide, and also helped me through my breast cancer. I love MUSIC. Karren McCallum

  11. Raman Venkatachalam

    At Royal Children’s Hospital Randwick in Sydney, they gladly took my daughter’s gift of a Kawai keyboard/ synthesizer.. They told her that music reduced the pain of children undergoing various painful surgery. They even had a volunteer teaching music to the kids!

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