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Music Therapy for COPD: How Will it Benefit You?

Mar 5, 2018 10:01:12 AM / by Duke Reeves

COPD is a complex disease to manage, and most patients use a mixture of several different medications and techniques to keep their symptoms under control. Along with standard treatments, like prescription bronchodilators, exercise regimens, and breathing techniques, there are other, less well-known therapies that patients can add to their treatment regimen to better manage their disease.

One of these less common COPD management techniques is music therapy, which takes a multi-faceted approach to improving both physical and psychological well-being. Recent research shows that music therapy can be very effective, improving respiratory symptoms, breathing strength, depression, and overall quality of life for patients with chronic respiratory diseases like COPD.

Doctors and researchers are increasingly recognizing the potential and importance of non-standard treatments like music therapy and pet therapy to help patients live more meaningful, fulfilling lives. If you'd like to learn more, continue reading to learn all about music therapy, its many physical and psychological benefits, and how you can use it to improve your COPD.


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What is Music Therapy?

On the most general level, music therapy is just what it sounds like: a form of therapy that involves both listening to and making music. In music therapy, patients take part in a variety of different activities guided by a music therapist, including playing instruments, singing, and music-guided relaxation exercises.


Some forms of music therapy are one-on-one, while others are done in a group therapy format. Music therapists will do their best to choose music that all participants enjoy and will tailor their sessions to suit individual music tastes.


Music therapy


Music therapists aim to engage participants with the emotional aspects of music, guiding them through music-based relaxation and visualization exercises, breath strengthening exercises, and interactive musical communication. For example, a music therapist might lead participants in using different musical instruments to express themselves non-verbally, encouraging wild tunes and creative experimentation as an outlet for negative energy.


By gauging their clients reactions and musical expressions, music therapists can assess their emotional states and tailor sessions to improve mental well-being. If relevant to treatment, music therapists may also assess participants' physical abilities, using activities and exercises that improve body strength and breathing, such as practicing a woodwind instrument like the flute.


However, the point of music therapy isn't to get technical music training or learn how to play an instrument, but to use music in more abstract ways to strengthen your body and mind. There is no one right way to practice music therapy, and techniques vary based on the needs of participants and the music therapist's personal style.


Unlike other forms of psychotherapy, which are usually built around talking and verbally working through problems, music therapy is essentially non-verbal. Listening to and participating in music requires little, if any, conversation, and allows participants to work through stress, anxiety, and other difficult issues in a more visceral, experiential way.


You might be wondering, “what exactly does music have to do with COPD?” The answer is that working with music can have powerful psychological and physical benefits that have been proven to improve COPD-related symptoms including breathlessness, anxiety, and fatigue.


The Benefits of Music Therapy

While everyone has different tastes and different degrees of passion for music, it's one of those human pleasures that just about everyone loves. You'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't enjoy music at least on occasion, and, for some people, music is a source of an incredible amount of joy in daily life.


Research shows that music can also help people with COPD overcome mental and physical obstacles; a recent study on music therapy found that it led to significant improvements in multiple aspects of patients' lives. It not only helped improve patients' moods and psychological health, but also their COPD symptoms and overall quality of life.


Modern music therapy has been around since the 1960's, but researchers and philosophers recognized the healing power of music many centuries ago, as far back as Plato and Aristotle. Now, many clinical trials have confirmed the effectiveness of music therapy for improving a variety of symptoms and is used to treat a wide variety of conditions besides COPD.


Here are some of the common diseases and conditions that music therapy can treat:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Emotional and behavioral problems
  • Alzheimer's disease and dementia
  • Other forms of memory loss
  • Acute and chronic pain


There are a couple main types of music therapy, each designed to treat a different set of diseases and conditions. People with COPD tend to benefit most from forms of music therapy that foster relaxation and help them strengthen their lungs.


Music Therapy for Respiratory Symptoms


Music notes


In a variety of ways, music is uniquely suited as a tool for improving breathing and respiratory health. This is apparent with musical activities that involve using your breath, like singing or blowing into an instrument, but it can help people with respiratory problems in other ways, as well.


Music with strong beats and rhythms can actually have noticeable cardio-respiratory effects, helping regulate heart rate and breathing. This is part of the reason why music is such an effective exercise tool; it helps you time your movements and breaths with the tempo of the music, which helps you pace yourself and reduce shortness of breath.


Forms of music therapy that include singing and playing wind instruments can improve respiratory symptoms by strengthening the muscles that you use to breathe. It can also teach you to better control your breathing by matching it with a steady musical rhythm.


Playing Wind Instruments to Improve Breathing Strength


Playing a wind instrument when you have a respiratory disease is very challenging, but the benefits are tremendous. It's an extremely effective way to exercise your lungs and practice better breathing control, which can do wonders for reducing shortness of breath.


As Dr. Jonathan Raskin, who specializes in pulmonary rehabilitation, explains, COPD “is really an illness of exhalation” as a result of their lungs trapping air and becoming hyper-inflated. Because of this, their lungs have very little room to expand as they breathe, making it difficult to inhale and take in enough oxygen.


However, when you learn to play the flute, harmonica, or another wind instrument, “You have to learn how to control your breathing, when to inhale, when to exhale, and how to pace yourself,” Dr. Raskin says. While this doesn't help COPD patients take in more air, it does help them learn learn to stretch their breaths and do more with the limited air that they have.


Playing wind instruments also works out the respiratory muscles in your chest, abdomen, and diaphragm. As these muscles become more toned and easier to control, it takes less effort to breathe, and allows you to use your breaths more efficiently.



Another way that using wind instruments can improve breathing is by training you to exhale deeply in a way that's similar to pursed lips breathing. This helps push trapped air out of your lungs and can reduce the symptoms of lung hyperinflation like breathlessness and wheezing.


There are many different wind instruments that you can use to build better breathing skills and improve the strength of your breathing muscles. Harmonicas are the most common instruments used for this purpose, since they are small, light, inexpensive, and don't require much strength to use.


Here are some examples of different wind instruments you can use for music therapy to treat COPD:
  • Harmonica (easy difficulty)
  • Slide whistle (easy difficulty)
  • Recorder (easy to medium difficulty)
  • Flute (medium difficulty)
  • Saxophone (hard difficulty)
  • Trumpet (hard difficulty)
  • Trombone (hard difficulty)


Singing to Improve Breathing Strength


Singing is also a great way for people with COPD and other lung diseases to improve their ability to breathe, and it works for many of the same reasons that wind instruments do. It helps train your breathing muscles, promotes relaxation, and helps patients learn better breath control.


Boy singing into a microphone.


When you sing, you have to take deep breaths and learn to conserve your air as you exhale for longer periods of time. Singing also teaches you good posture for improving respiration, using your diaphragm, and maximizing the amount of room your lungs have to expand.


As Dr. Andrea Paul puts it, “When singing you expand the lungs more, and exhale in a more prolonged and relaxed way so that more of the carbon dioxide is exhaled.” This works similarly to pursed-lips breathing, which is a common breathing technique used to exhale trapped air and reduce shortness of breath.


Woman singing while cleaning (illustration).


According to one study, participating in singing sessions for just one hour per week can improve symptoms and may even slow progression of the disease. Some of the patients were even able to increase their lung capacity over the course of the 12-week study, showing significant improvements in measures of their lung function.


Another recent study on music therapy and COPD also showed incredibly positive results after having patients in pulmonary rehabilitation classes participate in just six weeks of music therapy, which included singing and playing wind instruments. They found that patients who received music therapy along with pulmonary rehab were able to significantly reduce COPD symptoms like breathlessness and fatigue, and showed more improvement than patients who did pulmonary rehabilitation alone.


Music Therapy for Anxiety and Depression

The symptoms of COPD are not limited to the body, but affect your emotional and mental health as well. Psychological disorders like chronic anxiety and depression are very common among people with COPD, and are a significant source of distress for many patients.


As anyone who has experienced chronic anxiety or clinical depression can attest, anxiety and depression can significantly affect your quality of life and your motivation to make healthy choices. In fact, COPD patients who struggle with depression tend to have worse symptoms and are more likely to experience exacerbations and require hospitalization.


Illustration of a human brain.


In many cases, this happens because depressed patients are less likely to comply with their COPD treatment and more likely to neglect their diet, exercise, and other healthy habits. However, by using music therapy and other treatments, COPD patients can reduce anxiety and depression and live more active, healthy, and fulfilling lives.


Music therapy has been shown to have powerful effects on the mind and is often used to treat psychological conditions like anxiety and depression in people with COPD. Some of the psychological benefits come from the music itself, while others come from the therapist's guided activities and from the social aspect of music therapy.


Here are some of the different psychological benefits that COPD patients can gain from music therapy.


Relaxation & Reduced Anxiety

If you've ever had the joy of experiencing music, then you know that music can invoke intense feelings and powerful emotions. As a result of these emotive qualities, music therapy can be can be comforting, relaxing, motivating, energizing, and everything in-between.


Music therapy can also help you cope with stress and anxiety by reducing muscle tension and helping you feel relaxed and safe. You can ease the pain of negative emotions and depression by focusing your mind on music and musical expression that evokes positive feelings and thoughts.


Rocks stacked in a river.


There's also something to be said about the catharsis of expressing yourself through sound. Belting out your favorite lyrics, banging on drums, and getting your feelings out through musical expression can do wonders for releasing negative energy and reducing feelings of anxiety and depression.


Nonverbal Expression

Many types of music are accompanied by lyrics, the musical melodies themselves are totally wordless. That's one of the wonderful qualities of music; it can inspire powerful emotions with nothing but notes and rhythm.


Playing musical instruments allows you to harness this benefit, giving you the ability to communicate and express yourself non-verbally. Instead of naming and analyzing your feelings, you can channel them directly into musical expression.


Expressing yourself with sound is a great way to release tension and cope with pent-up emotions that are difficult to express with words. It also helps you get in touch with your inner self, allowing you access feelings and sensations with nonverbal expression that you wouldn't be able to with language.


Positive Visualization

The feelings that music evokes can be channeled into positive thoughts and energy. That's why many music therapists incorporate aspects of positive visualization into therapy sessions, helping participants relax their minds and focus on positive, comforting thoughts.




Music is a wonderful way to soothe your mind and let yourself go to a positive place where you feel calm, happy, and safe. In this way, music can help you learn to quiet your thoughts, better cope with fear, anxiety, and depression, and help reduce the emotional toll that COPD has on your mind.


Social Connection

If you take part in group music therapy, you can also reap the benefits of socializing and having fun with others. As one COPD patient put it, much of the benefit from music therapy comes from “the laughing, the support we get from each other.”


Many COPD patients struggle with feelings of loneliness and isolation, and don't socialize or get out of the house as often as they should. Music therapy gives you somewhere to go, something to look forward to, and an opportunity to connect with your peers.


Additionally, making music with others, whether through singing or playing instruments, creates a wonderful sense of community and togetherness. It's also a great way to make new friends and have meaningful connections with other people.


Music is one of those special, universal activities that brings people together and can add an enormous amount of joy and fun to any social interaction. Through music and music therapy, you have an opportunity to bond and connect with others in a truly unique way.


How You Can Participate in Music Therapy

The best way to experience the benefits of music therapy is to seek treatment from a licensed music therapist. Music therapists are trained professionals who have received at least a BA in Music Therapy, passed a music therapy certification exam, and have at least six months of experience in the field.


To find a music therapist in your area, you can talk to your doctor or consult a local hospital that employs music therapists to get a referral. You can also find music therapists with their own private practices or who work at schools, nursing homes, pulmonary rehabilitation centers, and other care settings.




One thing that's great about music therapy is that once you get started, it can be easy to practice by yourself at home. After receiving instruction from a licensed music therapist, you can use some of the methods and techniques you learned to continue therapy on your own time.


Another way to reap the physical benefits of music therapy is to take music lessons or otherwise teach yourself to play a wind instrument. By practicing with an instrument that you blow air through, like a woodwind or brass instrument, you can make noticeable improvements in your breathing strength and respiratory COPD symptoms.


If you want to learn to play an instrument, you can visit a local music store or school that offers private lessons. You might also be able to find a less pricey option or a group glass by checking with your local colleges, libraries, and community centers.


There are many other ways to use music to improve your mood, motivation, and satisfaction with life. Here are some ideas for how you can use music therapy to enhance your everyday life:
  • Listen to relaxing, soothing music to help you calm down whenever you feel stressed or anxious.

  • Spend some time singing every week, making an effort to focus on breathing control and rhythm. Just sixty minutes of singing every week can make a difference in your symptoms if you do it correctly and consistently.

  • Put together a playlist of up-beat music to help you get pumped up for physical activities and workouts. Exercise is less boring and it's easier to motivate yourself to keep moving when you have a fun, fast beat driving you forward.

  • Find an instrument that you enjoy playing and go at it when you feel anxious, depressed, or need to let out some negative energy. You don't have to be good or even know how to play the instrument correctly; as long as you're making noise and expressing yourself, then you're doing it right.

  • Make a playlist of music that makes you feel good and fill it with your favorite positive, uplifting songs. Whenever you feel down, depressed, or hopeless, listen to your encouraging playlist to get a boost of confidence and motivation.


Research into treatment methods like music therapy is part of a broader effort in the medical community to find new, non-traditional ways to help people with COPD and other chronic diseases. As one researcher puts it, “care of the chronically ill is moving toward methods that aim to preserve and enhance quality of life of our patients and activities of daily living.”
This means that doctors are increasingly starting to encourage their patients to try treatments like music therapy that focus not only on managing disease, but on improving the moods, mental health, and quality of life of patients who have COPD. If you or a loved one might be interested in trying music therapy, you can talk to your doctor to learn more about resources that are available in your area.
Even if you can't find a local or affordable licensed music therapist, you can try taking general music lessons or employing music therapy techniques on your own at home. With the help of music, you may be able to renew your sense of well-being, improve your COPD symptoms, and get significantly more satisfaction from life.

Topics: COPD, Medication and Treatment

Duke Reeves

Written by Duke Reeves

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