From Mozart to Beyoncé, music has been a form of therapy for plenty of ordinary people and hospital patients alike. Research has repeatedly shown that music can be used to improve learning, cognitive function, and symptoms of diseases like epilepsy and even Alzheimer’s.
A new study examines the impact of music therapy on terminally ill patients, or those who are undergoing palliative care. Palliative care is a specialized form of health care that focuses on relieving pain, symptoms, and mental duress of a chronic, terminal illness like cancer. The study was a randomized controlled trial published in Deutsches Ärzteblatt International.
In the study, the researchers examined 84 patients who were taking part in palliative care. The participants were divided into two groups: One received music therapy, and the other was the control group that received verbal relaxation exercises. In the music therapy group, the patients listened to two sessions of live music-based relaxation exercises using a monochord, a wooden instrument that provides an atmospheric, relaxing sound.
The researchers found that the patients who were in the music therapy group rated higher levels of relaxation and well-being after the session, compared to the control group. And it wasn’t just self-reported information; the researchers measured the physiological effects of the session, finding that music had a physical effect on the patients.
“This finding is supported by both the significant increase in high-frequency (HF) variations in heart rate and a trend towards greater peripheral blood flow, which suggests increased parasympathetic modulation and reduced sympathetic modulation of cardiovascular activity of the autonomic nervous system,” the authors wrote. Perhaps most interestingly, the researchers recorded a significant reduction in fatigue among the terminally ill patients, a phenomenon they’d like to examine more deeply in future studies to see if music therapy could boost energy.
“This study is the first randomized controlled trial to examine objective data for evidence that receptive music therapy has an effect on well-being and relaxation in patients receiving palliative care,” the researchers wrote. “The tested relaxation exercise can be used effectively by music therapy practitioners in their work with seriously and terminally ill patients.”