Music: The universal language


January 26, 2022

3 minute read

Disclosures: Petrelli does not report any relevant financial information.

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And as we go down the road,
our shadows higher than our soul,
there walks a lady we all know,
which shines with white light and wants
Pin up
how everything turns to gold again.

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

As the title of this commentary indicates, music is considered the universal language. The reason is that it exists in all societies, 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 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’s common knowledge that Bennett has Alzheimer’s disease, but you wouldn’t guess that by 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 the brain needs to systematize: rhythm, melody, pitch, memory, and visualization. It has been said that music speaks to the soul. An unknown author has been quoted as saying, “Music speaks of what cannot be expressed, quiets the mind and rests it, heals the heart and makes it whole, flows from heaven to the soul.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote: “Music is the universal language of humanity. Harvard scientists have published the most comprehensive scientific study on music as a cultural product, which backed up the American poet’s statement and examined what characteristics of song tend to be shared across societies. The research team found that in all societies, music is associated with behaviors such as healing, dancing and love. They found that songs that share behavioral functions tend to have similar musical characteristics.

I bring up the above points to emphasize that music therapy can help relieve the symptoms associated with cancer and its treatments. Music can help reduce breathing problems and improve the quality of life for patients at all stages of cancer. For patients undergoing mock radiation therapy, music therapy has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress. If you ever have an MRI in a closed unit, one of the first questions the technician will ask you is whether you want to listen to music. I encourage you to do so.

Each of your cancer centers should strive to have live music (not the classic elevator music) for your patients and staff. If there is no piano available, look for a volunteer who plays guitar, violin or cello. In 2020, there were 30 NCI-designated cancer centers that offered music therapy as an integrative cancer treatment, but I imagine there are more today. Our cancer center brought in students from the University of Delaware music department who were more than willing to volunteer their time. However, one caveat: brass instruments don’t work well in a closed environment, especially with staff on the phone. In the lobby of our cancer center, we’ve had pianists, guitarists, fiddlers, harpists and cellists, to the point where patients spend so much time listening to music that they’re late for their appointments. -you. Even late, they arrive with less anxiety for their treatment or follow-up.

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

Just as each patient’s cancer treatment is individualized, so is each coping strategy. Many strategies include keeping a journal, exercising, finding spiritual support, staying involved in the work environment without pushing yourself too hard, setting aside time to be alone with your thoughts, and practicing relaxation techniques. Relaxation can consist of listening to music of any genre. And finally, the obvious: you don’t have to be musically gifted to do music therapy. It cannot cure, treat or prevent cancer, but it can help your patients 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 might find, you get what you need.”

Be careful.


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 Medical Director of ChristianaCare’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center & Research Institute and Associate Director of Translational Research at Wistar Cancer Institute. He is also associate editor of Surgical Oncology for HemOnc Today. He can be contacted at


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