Listening to Music May Help Ease Chemo Brain

Listening to relaxing music may be a simple, effective way to help clear up brain fog and other cognitive side effects of breast cancer treatment.

Written by Jen Uscher | Reviewed by 1 medical adviser

Many people getting treatment for breast cancer are familiar with chemo brain — problems with thinking, concentration, processing information, and memory that can be caused by chemo, radiation, hormonal therapy, and other treatments, and that can persist even after treatments are done.  There are currently no FDA-approved medicines for treating chemo brain, formally known as cancer-related cognitive impairment (CRCI), and it’s also not well understood. Until recently, it was rare for people with a history of breast cancer to be assessed for CRCI, or for healthcare providers to help with managing cognitive symptoms, which can last months or even years. 

But things are beginning to change. Researchers have been studying a number of behavioral interventions to improve CRCI — most commonly cognitive behavioral treatment, cognitive training, and cognitive rehabilitation — and now some low-cost and accessible treatments for CRCI, such as therapies involving music, look surprisingly promising. 

A recent small pilot study, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, showed that simply listening to music every day for eight weeks improved cognitive function and mood in people who had cognitive problems related to their breast cancer treatment.

Using music to improve chemo brain 

Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin completed a study with 27 women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer, received chemotherapy, and reported cognitive problems related to their treatment. The women were divided into two groups. One group practiced music listening: they listened to classical music tracks (Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky) for 12 minutes each day. The other group listened to an audio track that guided them in a type of meditation known as Kirtan Kriya — which involves visualization and chanting, among other things — for 12 minutes each day.

After eight weeks, both groups experienced improvements in cognitive function, such as having a better ability to recall words, focus, concentrate, prioritize, and solve problems. But the group that listened to music also reported psychological benefits, such as feeling less stressed and less fatigued. And almost everyone in that group said they enjoyed listening to music as part of their daily routine.

The researchers don’t know exactly why listening to music is so beneficial for CRCI. There may be a few reasons, explained lead researcher Ashley Henneghan, PhD, RN, FAAN, assistant professor at the School of Nursing at the University of Texas at Austin. “Listening to music can be relaxing, it is pleasurable for most people, and it can activate and engage the whole brain,” she said. “It’s possible that regular music listening serves as a form of attention training, and improving one’s attention can be beneficial for other cognitive processes like remembering, multitasking, and processing information.”

Dr. Henneghan noted that music listening interventions may be easier for people to try to stick with than other therapies for CRCI since they’re low cost and don’t require a lot of time, travel, or specialized instructions or training. 

Other researchers have found that listening to music can improve brain function in older adults experiencing cognitive decline and in people who’ve had a stroke.

Music listening: how to get started

If you want to try listening to music to improve your cognitive function and mood during or after treatment for breast cancer, here are some tips from Dr. Henneghan.

Choose a playlist you like

Find some playlists of relaxing music without lyrics on a streaming service — generally available free or at a low cost. (Music with lyrics can activate the mind in a different way and won’t necessarily have the same benefits.) These are some of the playlists Dr. Henneghan recommends: 

  • the playlist of classical music from her study on SoundCloud
  • the focus playlists and instrumental playlists on Spotify
  • the peaceful mind playlist and study music playlist on Pandora

Listen every day

Listen to the playlists you’ve chosen while sitting comfortably and focusing on the music with your eyes closed or gently opened in a soft gaze for a set number of minutes each day for about a month. If 12 minutes (the length of time used in the study) seems like a lot, you can start with five minutes each day and work up to 12.

Rinse and repeat, or experiment

If feel that listening to music is helping to alleviate symptoms of chemo brain or improving your mood and you’re enjoying it, you can keep going after the month is over. If not, consider trying something different, such as meditation. 

“It’s great to try running your own experiment on yourself to see what works for you,” says Dr. Henneghan. “There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to managing CRCI, so it may take some trial and error. Personal preference is important.” 

Other therapies worth trying for chemo brain

Music therapy, which is different from music listening, is another intervention that can help ease symptoms of CRCI, anxiety, and depression. It involves working with a trained music therapist who asks you questions and tailors the therapy to your unique needs.

A music therapy session could include listening to live or recorded music, singing, making music with simple instruments, moving to music, writing songs, or discussing what lyrics mean to you. You don’t need to have any musical training or ability to benefit from music therapy.

Many cancer centers, hospitals, and clinics have music therapy programs. You can also search the American Music Therapy Association’s online directory for a board-certified music therapist in your area.

There are several other, non-musical therapies that research shows can be helpful for CRCI:

  • meditation
  • cognitive rehabilitation programs
  • physical exercise
  • yoga
  • qigong
  • acupressure
  • nutritional and dietary changes

In addition, if you are experiencing anxiety, depression, insomnia, or fatigue, in some cases getting treatment for those issues can help improve memory and thinking problems.

Posted in: Emotional/Mental Health, In Treatment, Side Effects