Symptoms of depression can be reduced with music therapy

Liz Lockhart

Music therapy, when combined with standard treatment, is effective in helping people with depression, according to a Finnish study.

Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä have found that making music can help people express their emotions and reflect their inner experiences. Their findings are published in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Led by Professor Jaakko Erkkila and Professor Christian Gold, the research team recruited 79 people aged between 18 and 50 years of age who had been diagnosed with depression.

Thirty three of the participants were offered music therapy sessions in addition to their regular treatment for depression.  The standard treatment for depression in Finland includes medication (antidepressants), 5-6 individual psychotherapy sessions and psychiatric counselling.  The remaining 46 participants only received standard treatment and acted as the control group.

Each music therapy session was one-on-one and lasted for an hour. The sessions took place twice a week with trained music therapists.  Each participant was helped to improvise music using drums and other percussion instruments.

Each participant attended an average of 18 music therapy sessions.  88% (29 participants) attended at least 15 sessions.  The participants in both groups were followed up at three months and six months and assessed for symptoms of depression and anxiety.

After three months the researchers found that the participant who had received music therapy showed greater improvement than those who received only standard care.  They had significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety.  They also scored better on general functioning.

The improvements remained after six months but the difference between the groups was no longer statistically significant.

‘Our trial has shown that music therapy, when added to standard care including medication, psychotherapy and counselling, helps people to improve their levels of depression and anxiety.’ Professor Gold said.  ‘Music therapy has specific qualities that allow people to express themselves and interact in a non-verbal way, even in situations when they cannot find the words to describe their inner experiences.’

Prof. Erkkila added ‘We found that people often expressed their inner pressure and feelings by drumming or with the tones produced with a mallet instrument.  Some people described their playing experience as cathartic.  Our findings now need to be repeated with a larger sample of people, and further research is needed to assess the cost-effectiveness of such therapy.’

The research has been welcomed by UK experts.

Writing in an editorial in the same issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Mike Crawford, Reader in Mental Health Services Research in the Centre for Mental Health, Imperial College London, said: “This is a high-quality randomised trial of music therapy specifically for depression, and the results suggest that it can improve the mood and general functioning of people with depression. Music-making is social, pleasurable and meaningful. It has been argued that music making engages people in ways that words may simply not be able to.”

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Further help on depression

Depression Symptoms
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Types of Depression
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