Music Therapy for Reduced Anxiety, Use of Sedatives

A recent study suggests that music therapy may reduce anxiety and the need for sedative medications in patients on ventilator support.

Music has been used as a tool of healing since ancient times, appearing in the writings of the Greek philosophers Pythagoras, Aristotle and Plato. Native Americans and other indigenous groups have used music to enhance traditional healing practices for centuries. Music has been used to influence physical, emotional, cognitive and social well-being and improve quality of life for healthy people as well as those who are disabled or ill. Therapy may involve either listening to or performing music, with or without the presence of a music therapist.

Music can have a calming or sedating effect. There is evidence of this in studies of patients undergoing gastrointestinal endoscopic procedures, including evidence that colonoscopy patients who used music intervention may have a higher rate of completed colonoscopies and shorter examination time. Other work suggests that patients undergoing spinal anesthesia may have less need for sedative medication during and after surgery.

In a recent study, researchers randomly assigned 373 patients from 12 intensive care units to one of three groups. The first group received self-initiated music therapy with the assistance of a music therapist while on ventilator support. The second group used noise-canceling headphones when desired while on ventilator support. The third group received usual care while on ventilator support. Anxiety was measured daily through a visual analog scale as was the intensity and frequency of sedative exposure.

The patients in the music therapy group listened to music for an average of 79.8 minutes daily and those in the noise-canceling headphones group used the headphones for an average of 34 minutes daily. The researchers found that the patients in the music therapy group had significantly lower anxiety scores than those in the usual care group, 19.5 points lower, at any point throughout the study. By day five of the study, anxiety reduced by 36.5 percent for patients in the music therapy group, and sedative exposure significantly reduced when compared to the usual care group. Furthermore, music therapy patients received two fewer sedative doses and 36 percent reduced sedative intensity by day five.

The authors noted that when compared to the noise-canceling headphone group, significant reductions in anxiety and sedative intensity were lacking for the music therapy group; however, reductions in sedative frequency were significant.

The authors concluded that music therapy may reduce anxiety and sedative frequency for patients on ventilator support. Additional research is warranted to further evaluate these findings.

Natural Standard recently authored a blog for Psychology Today on music therapy. To read the full blog, please visit

Chlan LL, Weinert CR, Heiderscheit A, Tracy MF, Skaar DJ, Guttormson JL, Savik K.. “Effects of patient-directed music intervention on anxiety and sedative exposure in critically ill patients receiving mechanical ventilatory support: a randomized clinical trial.Journal of American Medical Association. 2013 Jun 12;309(22):2335-44. doi: 10.1001/jama.2013.5670.

Published in June, 2013 issue of Natural Standard’s Integrative Medicine Newsletter. Republished with permission of Natural Standards Research Collaboration ©2013.