If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you will interact with a number of different members of the health care team at various times during treatment. When you walk into a doctor’s office, hospital, or cancer center, you may encounter doctors, nurses, physician assistants, social workers—the list goes on. In the Spotlight On series, we talk with some of these health care professionals to learn more about their jobs and the role they play in providing high-quality cancer care.
Music therapists provide services to help people cope with a cancer diagnosis and its treatment. Here, Karen Popkin gives us an inside look at the role music therapists play. She is a board-certified music therapist and licensed creative arts therapist. She studied music education at Ohio University before earning a Master of Arts degree in music therapy at New York University. As Program Coordinator of Creative Arts at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Service, she serves pediatric and adult patients and their families. She also educates other health care professionals and delivers lectures and workshops in New York and internationally.
1. What is music therapy?
Karen Popkin (KP): Music therapy is a mental health profession in which personalized music-based interventions address physical, emotional, cognitive, spiritual, and social needs.
2. What does a music therapist do?
KP: A board-certified music therapist (MT-BC) uses sound and music to promote healing and improve quality of life. Music therapists work with people of all ages. The settings vary, including hospitals, schools, and mental health communities.
We learn about our clients’ strengths, preferences, and needs before creating a treatment plan. Each music therapy session is unique. However, it often entails some combination of creating, singing, moving to, or listening to music.
We may act as guides, co-creators, and witnesses to the music people living with cancer choose and express. In addition, we provide empathic listening and psychotherapeutic counseling related to issues that arise during sessions.
3. How can music therapy help people with cancer?
KP: Music can be a powerful medium to provide relaxation, evoke emotions, awaken memories, and facilitate movement. It may also act as a lifeline to a life outside the treatment environment. In group settings, it may help form new connections with other people.
Research studies show that music therapy helps address symptoms such as anxiety, pain, and depression. Research also shows that it can be effective at helping people express feelings, communicate, cope, and adjust.
Music therapy strengthens clients' abilities, which transfer to other areas of life. Often, the therapist helps the client reflect on the experience with music and make meaningful connections to daily life.
Meanwhile, music therapy provides avenues for communication for those who struggle to express themselves with words.
4. Is music therapy just for people who are already musically talented?
KP: Not at all! Some of the most profound moments I have witnessed have been with people with no previous musical training. It’s a privilege to see a person surprised by joy while exploring and creating sounds. In my experience, the single most important prerequisite is a willingness to try music therapy.
5. How did you get involved in music therapy?
KP: I first learned about the field when I was earning a Bachelor’s degree in music education. Later, I found myself drawn to health, wellness, and psychotherapy. And, I realized that it made perfect sense for me to enroll in a graduate program for clinical music therapy.
6. Is music therapy covered by health insurance?
KP: Through Medicaid, music therapy is a reimbursable service under the Partial Hospitalization Programs. There are also Medicaid Home and Community-Based Care waivers for certain client groups.
Eligibility under Medicare varies on state-by-state basis.
Some private insurance companies consider music therapy reimbursable when services are pre-approved and deemed medically or behaviorally necessary to reach the patient's treatment goals.
7. How can I find a certified/credible music therapist?
KP: The American Music Therapy Association website provides a database of board-certified members. You can search by geographical location and areas of specialization.
You can also search The Certification Board for Music Therapy database. This organization oversees the nationally recognized MT-BC certification. Some states also grant licenses to therapists who meet mental health provider guidelines.
8. Is this something I could do on my own? Why or why not?
KP: I heartily encourage everyone to use music in a therapeutic way. For example, you may use it to create a calming environment, energize yourself, and tap into creativity. However, self-help music activities fall outside the definition of music therapy. While meaningful and beneficial, a personal music practice differs from the support and relationship-based care found in a professional therapy context.