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Music Therapy for Depression

by Wellness Letter  

Music soothes the savage beast, the saying goes (actually, the original quote from 1697 says "savage breast"). Can it also soothe the symptoms of depression? Much research has con­firmed that music has both psy­chological and physiological effects. While scientists can now see via medical imaging some of the changes in the brains of people listening to Beethoven or Elvis, music is a very complex stim­ulus, and the ways it works on us remain largely elusive.

In a research paper published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2017, German researchers analyzed findings from 28 studies of music therapy, which included 1,810 participants. The stud­ies took very different approaches, from having depressed patients simply listen to music to encouraging them to participate in singing or instrumental group music therapy. The trials also employed different styles of music. Overall, 26 of the 28 studies found statistically significant reductions in depression levels associated with music therapy. Among studies that used the Geriatric Depression Scale to measure depression, music therapy was associated with a 43 percent improvement in symptoms.

Because the studies varied so widely, drawing conclusions about the best form of music therapy was difficult. Group music therapy sessions were slightly more effective at easing depression than individual sessions. Participants ages 60 and older had greater improvements in depression scores than younger participants, according to the authors.

Music therapy in general appears to offer a promising adjunct to conventional therapy for depression, especially for patients with mild to moderate depression. Still, more research will be needed to determine which types of music therapy might best benefit people with depression.

This article first appeared in the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter.

Also see Shining a Light on Depression.