Music for the Melancholy: How Does Music Therapy Help Depression?

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Different Treatments for Depression

Depression is a commonly diagnosed mental illness, affecting a surprising number of Americans. Many therapies exist to treat depression, including psychotherapy, medication, and natural remedies of herbs and other supplements. Another type of treatment that has been used for years and is increasing in popularity is music therapy. How does music therapy help depression? Music therapy has been shown to improve mood, sooth a depressed individual into a relaxing physical and mental state, and enable psychotherapy to work more effectively.

Music as Therapy

Music has powerful and definite effects on most of the processes of the body. It increases bodily metabolism, which is usually decreased in a depressed person. Listening to music increases muscular energy, too, which is also low in someone suffering from depression. Music raises blood pressure and pulse rate, two vital signs that are typically decreased with this condition. Music decreases fatigue, an overwhelming depressive symptom. Finally, music has the power to reduce suggestibility and the extent of illusions experienced by those who are depressed by acting as a positive distraction. Therapists who have been using music to treat patients with depression have learned that this type of treatment has additional benefits. These benefits increase when music therapy is used in conjunction with psychotherapy and possibly medication and include:

  • Attracting attention and increasing attention span, thereby circumventing thoughts that cause depression and getting the individual out of the blue mood;
  • Replacing a depressed mood with one of pleasure and mild elation;
  • Relieving inner tension and conflicts that give rise to the depressive state;
  • Enhancing muscular activity with rhythmic stimuli which leads to physical motion, which, in turn, decreases depression and heightens senses to what is happening around the patient;
  • Giving the ability to open up during therapy sessions and relax in between sessions;
  • Improving coping skills, thought processes and feelings, and behavior patterns, and;
  • Offering a sense of success in treatment.

Music therapy is practiced by a trained psychologist or psychiatrist, who can offer the treatment individually or in groups. Receptive therapy, most widely used in the United States, involves patients simply listening to music. Activities, such as meditating, moving, drawing, and reminiscing, may also be practiced with the music. The music and these activities help the patient relax and open up to the therapist. Different types of music will elicit various responses and feelings. The therapist will suggest what type of music should be listened to, depending on what feelings and emotions he or she wants to provoke in the patient. Since each patient experiences different symptoms, the music therapy program is tailored to the individual and can change depending on the therapeutic results.

Research of Music Therapy

A recent Austrian study in the Journal of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics explored music therapy in the treatment of depression. Unlike previous studies of music therapy for depression treatment which lacked specific stimuli, used small samples, or had methodological shortcomings, this study was well-received. The study investigated two forms of receptive music therapy among depressed adults. Two hundred and three participants were screened online using the Goldberg Depression Questionnaire. The study design included four groups: music therapy 1 (MT1), music therapy 2 (MT2), placebo, and waiting-list control. Participants in MT1 and MT2 listened to types of music, and the placebo group heard recorded nature sounds. During the study’s central trial element, the participants were asked to strictly follow their assigned study protocol with the purpose of examining the effects of MT1 and MT2. Participants with audio programs were told they could not change from their assigned program to alternative music programs during the study’s central trial phase.

Researchers developed individualized music-focused audio therapies for MT1 and MT2 as receptive music therapies to treat depression. Participants in MT1 listened to newly composed polyphonic modern music, while participants in MT2 heard specifically arranged classical music. Both groups listened for a half hour, twice a day. Assessing depression status after the therapy, MT1 showed a significant positive effect, according to the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D). The MT2 group did not show this effect. A significant positive effect was shown for both MT1 and MT2 on HAM-D and the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS-D). MT2 participants, but not MT1 participants, showed a positive effect on the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI). The placebo group did not show a significant change in any depression score. Based on these result in this study, receptive music therapy appears to reduce symptoms of depression. Researchers report that receptive music therapy, either by itself or with psychosocial and pharmacological treatments, can effectively alleviate depression.

How does music therapy help depression? In addition to the above answers, many patients simply enjoy music therapy and feel uplifted by it. And the benefits do not have to end. When patients complete professional treatment, they can use the therapeutic techniques learned to treat relapses of depression, or to improve a blue mood any time.