Disclosures: Petrelli reports no relevant financial disclosures.
January 26, 2022
3 min read

Music: The universal language

Disclosures: Petrelli reports no relevant financial disclosures.
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And as we wind on down the road,
our shadows taller than our soul,
there walks a lady we all know,
who shines white light and wants to
how everything still turns to gold.

A few readers may recognize the lyrics above, from a song first performed in 1971 by a notorious rock group. If you do, shoot me an email.

As the title of this commentary states, music is considered the universal language. The reason is that it exists in every society, with and without words. Interestingly, it varies more within societies than between them, and it supports certain types of behavior. Certainly, that was true in the 1960s.

Used effectively, music can connect people to themselves and to others. For many people with dementia, music may be the only thing they seem to remember. If you watched the last concert with Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, you would understand how music can connect people to themselves. It is known publicly that Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease, but you wouldn’t guess that watching him in concert.

Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, FACS
Nicholas J. Petrelli

Music has been shown to activate several parts of the brain. Think about the complex messages that the brain needs to systemize: rhythm, melody, pitch, memory and visualization. It has been stated that music speaks to the soul. An unknown author was quoted as saying, “Music speaks what cannot be expressed, soothes the mind and gives it rest, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.” Scientists at Harvard published the most comprehensive scientific study on music as a cultural product, which supported the American poet’s pronouncement and examined what features of song tend to be shared across societies. The research team found that across societies, music is associated with behaviors such as healing, dance and love. They discovered that songs that share behavioral functions tend to have similar musical features.

I bring up the points above to emphasize that music therapy can help to alleviate symptoms associated with cancer and its treatments. Music can help reduce breathing problems and improve quality of life in patients in all stages of cancer. It has been demonstrated that for patients undergoing radiation therapy simulation, music therapy lowers anxiety and stress. If you ever have an MRI in a closed unit, one of the first questions the technician will ask is if you would like to listen to some music. I encourage you to do so.

Each of your cancer centers should make an effort to have live music (not the classic elevator music) for your patients and staff. If there is no piano available, search for a volunteer who plays the guitar, violin or cello. As of 2020, there were 30 NCI-designated cancer centers that offered music therapy as an integrative treatment for cancer, but I imagine there are more today. Our cancer center has used students from the department of music at University of Delaware who have been more than willing to volunteer their time. However, one note of caution: Brass instruments don’t work well in a closed environment, especially with personnel on their phones. In our cancer center lobby, we have had piano players, guitarists violinists, harpists and cellists, to the point where patients spend so much time listening to the music that they are late for their appointments. Even when late, they arrive with less anxiety for their treatment or follow-up.

Music is a fixture of the human experience. It can be a safe place for people to explore fear, anxiety, anger and the range of emotional responses to living with cancer.

Just as each patient’s cancer treatment is individualized, so is each coping strategy. Many strategies involve keeping a journal, exercising, finding spiritual support, staying involved in the work environment without pushing oneself too hard, setting aside time to be alone with one’s thoughts and practicing relaxation techniques. Relaxation can involve listening to music of any genre. And finally, the obvious: You don't need to be musically talented to do music therapy. It cannot cure, treat or prevent cancer, but it can help your patients to relax and improve their emotional and physical well-being.

In the words of my favorite philosopher, “You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.”

Stay safe.


Daykin N, et al. Art Psych. 2006;doi:10.1016/j.aip.2006.07.001.
Mehr SA, et al. Science. 2019;doi:10.1126/science.aax0868.

For more information:

Nicholas J. Petrelli, MD, FACS, is Bank of America endowed medical director of ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute and associate director of translational research at Wistar Cancer Institute. He also serves as Associate Editor of Surgical Oncology for HemOnc Today. He can be reached at npetrelli@christianacare.org.