Scientific Reasons Music Therapy is the Depression Treatment You’ve Been Looking For

How music is used to heal, what the research says, and why music therapy could help you

The World Health Organization (WHO) projects that 264 million people suffer from depression worldwide. Depression can cause a person to suffer from anxiety, inability to sleep, lack of energy, and a loss of enjoyment in life. Severe cases of depression can lead some individuals to even commit suicide. As depression symptoms continue to rise globally, suicide has become the second most common cause of death for individuals who are between the ages of 15 and 29.

Depression can be difficult to diagnose, and many people need to try multiple medications before settling on the correct one. Some people may even need to take more than one prescription medication at the time to effectively treat the illness. However, there are alternative treatments aside from prescription medications to treat depression, including music therapy.

So what is music therapy? We’ll go over what science says about music therapy for depression and how it can be used to treat it, including:

  • The history of music therapy
  • How music therapy works to treat depression 
  • The different types of music therapy that are used

A Crash Course in the History of Music Therapy

From Antiquity to the 2020s

The association between music and the healing process dates all the way back to ancient Greece. The Greek god Apollo was recognized as the god of healing and medicine, as well as the god of music. However, modern music therapy began being used to treat mental illness during World War I and World War II. With thousands of wounded soldiers suffering from physical injuries, shell-shock, PTSD, and emotional trauma, musicians all over the world traveled to hospitals to play music for the wounded soldiers. Doctors began to notice a significant improvement in the physical and emotional condition of their patients,  leading to some hospitals hiring musicians to play for their patients.

However, the training required to safely work in a hospital was not something that was commonly provided to the musicians. In order to ensure their patients were in an environment that was safe for them to heal in, demand grew amongst the doctors for a college program to be created that would train the musicians before they began working at the hospitals. And in 1944 Michigan State University became the first college in the world to offer a degree program in music therapy. 

Celebrity Luke Bryan playing music for patient
Country Star Luke Bryan performing as part of the Musicians on Call Program. Note- he is NOT a music therapist. Image courtesy of CBS News

How Music Therapy Differs From Listening to Music

Styles of Music Therapy and How They Treat Depression 

Music therapy allows people a safe, calming atmosphere to explore their personal struggles and anxieties. In fact, many patients who receive musical therapy have no musical skills to begin with. Patients develop a sense of control over their struggles through the feeling of accomplishing a new task, or learning a new skill. By gaining a feeling of control over their life, they feel more capable of making positive changes. Therefore, music therapy can be used to help anybody who is struggling from depression.

The different types of music therapy that are used are known as receptive music therapy and active music therapy. In receptive music therapy, the patient listens to live or recorded music that their therapist recommends/ selects for them to best address their needs. Receptive music therapy has also shown to be effective in easing anxiety issues in patients undergoing surgery. In active music therapy, the patients actually participate in the process of creating music. This is typically done by having the patient learn to sing or play an instrument. Improvisation is often encouraged by the mental health professional in order to help the patient explore their feelings and emotions. What makes all of this different from  listening to an Ipod or going to a local piano teacher, is that the music chosen during receptive therapy, and the music performed during active music therapy, are specifically chosen by a therapist or psychiatrist trained in treating depression. 

Why Music Therapy Treats Depression

How Music Influences Your Emotional State

Research shows that both psychotherapy and prescription medication, are the most common treatments for depression. They are likely to improve when they are combined with music therapy. The overall findings have shown that patients noticeably report being less depressed when they receive music therapy in addition to their regular or ongoing treatment. Now, research has turned to examining which types of music, and which types of music therapies, work best for different individuals and different ailments.

In the case of individuals suffering from depression, brain imaging scans have shown music therapy is effective in activating the portions of the brain that regulate emotional states. The American Music Therapy Association provides ample studies that show a link between music therapy and treating depression and anxiety. The studies documented less tension in the body's muscles, a decreased feeling of anxiety, an improvement in one’s self esteem, increased motivation, and even an improvement in the individual's personal relationships.

Mothers relationship with child improved through playing piano
Music therapy is shown to improve personal relationships in the lives of those suffering from depression

While more research needs to be completed in order to fully understand why music therapy is beneficial, three main theories were hypothesized in The British Journal of Psychiatry. The first theory is that the patient receives a sense of meaning and pleasure out of performing music. It allows those who have difficulty expressing their emotions an environment in which to engage in an expressive way, while simultaneously providing a pleasurable experience from performing or listening to music. Additionally, active music therapy is theorized to treat depression because of the inherent physical nature that is involved in singing or playing an instrument. 

Through the combination of different breathing techniques, as well as the physical motion involved in strumming a guitar or playing a piano, the body is engaged in physical activity. Even this light form of exercise is thought to combat feelings of depression and anxiety.  Finally, music therapy is thought to be useful in combating depression because it allows the patient to communicate and interact with other people in a new or different way. By changing the form of communication, the patient may feel more open or relaxed about sharing their emotions and other personal details with their therapists.

Edited by Cara Jernigan on January 19, 2021

Anthony Stockton
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