Whistle While You Recuperate

Publication: HealthDay News at

Author / Writer: Karen Pallarito


Medical care often involves instruments that poke and prod. So it may come as a huge relief to patients when the instrument involved in their therapy—perhaps something from the string or percussion family—doesn’t make them wince.

Music therapy, a specialty that involves the use of music to achieve therapeutic benefits, is slowly making inroads across the country as more insurers recognize its benefits.

“I think the general trend is it’s being accepted much more,” said Al Bumanis, a spokesman for the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA). About 20 percent of music therapists report being reimbursed by a third-party payer for their services, he noted, and new jobs are being created all the time.

As a therapeutic tool, music has been shown to impart numerous emotional and physical benefits. Treatments can be designed to relieve stress, reduce pain, ease depression, alleviate nausea and improve sleep, for example.

Jayne M. Standley, a professor of music at Florida State University, pioneered the use of music in neonatal units. Her research shows that music increases the sucking rate of premature babies, enabling them to increase their weight.

Debra S. Burns, an assistant professor of music therapy at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, does work with cancer patients, a growing arena for music therapists.

“It really is a creative way to help people cope and to deal with the stressors of having cancer,” she said.

Burns and her colleagues recently presented research at the American Society of Hematology meeting that examined the use of “music imagery” as a means of reducing anxiety among patients who were highly distressed. “It’s kind of like daydreaming to music,” she explained.

Music’s healing influence has been on record since ancient times, according to the AMTA. As a discipline, music therapy emerged in the wake of World Wars I and II, when musicians began visiting hospitalized veterans recovering from physical and emotional trauma.

“That’s when they discovered that the vets responded so well to music,” said Barbara Reuer, a music therapist in private practice in California.

Today, music therapy’s applications are almost as broad as the number of conditions that people suffer from. The AMTA’s nearly 5,000 music therapists work in a multitude of patient-care settings, including hospitals, nursing homes, mental-health facilities, assisted-living facilities and hospices.

“Every setting has a unique set of circumstances in terms of how therapists work,” Reuer explained.

Likewise, every music therapy session is unique. Typically, a nurse or social worker initiates the request for a music therapist. Reuer begins her sessions by doing a quick assessment of the patient’s symptoms. Is he or she depressed or in pain? Does the patient simply need a diversion to break the pain cycle?

As an ice-breaker, she will hand the patient a top-40 songbook with tunes spanning the decades.

“Usually there are one or two songs in the book that the patient connects with, and so it’s a really good way for the therapist to connect with the patient and then go from there,” she said.

Sometimes, the therapist sings and invites the patient to sing along. Other times, the therapist engages the patient in music-making with the use of simple instruments. Reuer might use egg shakers, maracas, a slit drum or a marimba.

She and her team of therapists have collected data for more than 20,000 patients using self-reported measures of anxiety, pain and nausea before and after music therapy sessions. Based on that data, no single group of patients appears to have benefited more than others.

“They all got benefit in terms of symptom reduction,” she said.

More information

To learn more, visit the American Music Therapy Association.

SOURCES: Al Bumanis, MT-BC, director, communications, American Music Therapy Association, Silver Spring, Md.; Debra S. Burns, Ph.D., MT-BC, assistant professor, music therapy, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis; Barbara Reuer, Ph.D., MT-BC, director, MusicWorx of California, San Diego; Florida State University, Tallahassee

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