A New Study Links Music Therapy With Cancer Care Benefits — Here’s What This Means For Cancer Patients

A Feasibility Study from the University of Kansas Has Found Promising Results After Incorporating Music Therapy Into Cancer Care.

In the fall of 2020, two feasibility studies co-written by Cindy Colwell and Jennifer Fiore were published online in the Journal of Music Therapy. These two studies were concerned with the adaptation of music education for therapeutic settings, specifically using the Orff Approach from music education and transferring it to music therapy sessions with cancer patients. 

Through the studies, Colwell, a music professor at the University of Kansas, and Fiore, a faculty member at Western Michigan University, came to the conclusion that the components of an elementary school music curriculum can also be beneficial when used in music therapy sessions for adult cancer patients. 

a person bangs a drum with their hands
Although typically used in music classes for younger children, the Orff Approach has also produced promising results and improvements among adult cancer patients. 

Music Education and The Orff Approach

In the early twentieth century, German composer Carl Orff developed a music education method for teaching young children about musical concepts. This method, later named the Orff Approach, seeks to teach children about music, while engaging their minds and bodies through singing, dancing, acting, and the use of percussive instruments. 

Notably, the Orff Approach also aims to incorporate elements of play into music education, allowing children to improvise and learn at their own pace. 

Orff Instruments

Educators who use the Orff Approach will typically incorporate percussive instruments into their lessons, including instruments like

  • Xylophones
  • Metallophones
  • Castanets
  • Bells
  • Maracas
  • Triangles
  • Cymbals
  • Tambourines
  • Timpani
  • Gongs
  • Bongos
  • Steel drums
  • Conga drums
  • Cowbells
  • Djembes
  • Rainmakers
  • Sand blocks, tone blocks, and wood blocks

Although music lessons that incorporate the Orff method usually have some commonalities, there is no single, standardized curriculum for this approach. Lesson plans can be adapted to meet the needs of individual groups and accommodate a range of students. 

In addition to percussive instruments, a teacher using the Orff Approach may also use poetry in their lessons, having students recite poems that they choose while rhythms are created with instruments. 

Overall, the Orff Approach is meant to encourage improvisation and creativity in music students.

a man plays a guitar
Developing and incorporating elements from the Orff Approach, Colwell and Fiore used their study to observe the impacts of different music therapy techniques. 

Colwell, Fiore, and Music Therapy for Cancer Patients

Holding three levels of Orff certification and having completed an Orff Masterclass, Colwell began to work with one of her graduate students to develop a chant that would later be used in the feasibility study. Essentially, Colwell wanted to write a music-based Orff intervention that would be successful in engaging potential patients. 

Colwell and Fiore continued to work on this initial intervention, and after getting approval to conduct the necessary research for their study, they set to work to implement their methodology with real patients. 

The Study

Colwell and Fiore asked 45 cancer patients to be participants in one of two types of music therapy sessions:

  • A traditional music therapy session, where patients would select a song of their choosing to sing along with or just listen to, while a music therapist accompanied them
  • A music therapy session that was based on the Orff Approach

For the sessions that were based on the Orff Approach, patients would fill in the blanks to phrases that were provided by their music therapist, inserting words that they felt best described their feelings about their cancer treatments. Once they created their individualized chant, the patients would combine their chant with a musical accompaniment made from simple instruments. 

The Role of the Music Therapist

According to Colwell, the job of the music therapist throughout the study was to listen to the statements from the patients, and then in turn, help the patient incorporate their chants into music and rhythms. 

In line with the basic tenets of the Orff Approach, the music therapists involved in the study had the ability to change the level of music complexity depending on each participating patient. For Colwell, adjusting the level of complexity in each session was an important part of making sure each patient was able to feel successful in their musical expression. 

an up-close image of piano keys
Through this study of music therapy techniques, Colwell and Fiore wanted to give the participating patients some musical strategies and tools for processing their emotions and positively expressing their feelings. 

The Goals and Benefits of Music Therapy in Cancer Care

Undergoing cancer treatments can be physically and mentally challenging for patients. Throughout treatments, patients may experience pain, anxiety, fatigue, and altered moods. The goals of using music therapy to treat cancer patients are to allow patients to have a space where they can vocalize and express their emotional responses to their treatments in a productive and positive way. 

Results of the Study

With this study, Colwell set out to help find effective music therapy methods for patients to express their feelings and achieve a sense of well-being. By connecting the patients’ emotional experiences with musical activities, particularly techniques associated with the Orff Approach, Colwell hoped to help patients process their emotions and manage their symptoms. 

After examining the patients’ self-reports of cancer-related symptoms from both before and after the music therapy appointments, Colwell and Fiore found that the patients’ pain, fatigue, anxiety, and moods improved enough to warrant further study in this area of music therapy research. 

a pile of sheet music and music books
With a wide range of music therapy approaches and methods, patients are able to experience music therapy in whatever way is most productive and beneficial to them. As new strategies are investigated by professionals like Colwell and Fiore, cancer patients will get to experience even more ways of implementing music therapy in their lives. 

For cancer patients seeking emotional relief, music therapy can be a helpful and productive treatment option. With Colwell and Fiore’s recent study indicating that there are many effective approaches to music therapy sessions, patients will continue to be able to find the music therapy plan that is best for expressing and processing their emotions. 

Annabeth Collis
Annabeth Collis is a writer from Buffalo, NY.
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