Depression is a mental illness marked by feelings of profound sadness and lack of interest in activities. People with depression have symptoms that range from persistent feelings of emptiness to thoughts of death or suicide. Standard treatment involves the use of medicine and therapy, such as music therapy. Music therapy is used to address the physical, emotional, cognitive, and social needs of individuals. In particular, it helps people who are unable to express themselves through words.

Researchers wanted to assess effects of music therapy compared with usual treatment or other therapies. They also wanted to compare the effects of different forms of music therapy for people with a diagnosis of depression. This study, published in The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, found that music therapy provides short-term benefits for people with depression.

About the Study

The systematic review of 9 randomized or quasi-randomized controlled trials included 421 adults with depression. The trials varied by participant population, intervention, and comparator. The review included trials of any duration and time frames of outcome assessment. Participants in the trials were randomized to music therapy, treatment as usual, psychological therapies, pharmacological therapies, other therapies, or different forms of music therapy for reducing depression.

At three months or less, the music therapy plus standard treatment group had:

  • Improvements in the severity of clinician-rated depressive symptoms (4 trials with 219 participants)
  • Improvements in the severity of patient-reported depressive symptoms (4 trials with 142 participants)
  • Improvements in anxiety (3 trials with 195 participants)
  • Improved functioning (1 trial with 67 participants)

The study did not find a significant difference in health-related quality of life. When comparing music therapy to psychological therapy, such as counseling or cognitive behavioral therapy, no significance in patient-reported depressive symptoms was found (4 trials with 131 patients). There was insufficient evidence to evaluate effects of active music therapy versus receptive music therapy. Active music therapy may involve singing, playing an instrument, and writing songs. In receptive music therapy, participants listen to music when doing activities, such as crafts.

How Does this Affect You?

A systematic review combines a number of smaller trials to create a larger pool of participants. The larger the pool of participants, the more reliable the outcomes are. However, the quality of the smaller trials will also affect the reliability of the outcomes. The studies included here were small trials that had some quality issues. The included studies also had many differences that makes it hard to draw solid conclusions from. For example, different music therapy interventions were used, so we are unclear about effect of each one. However, past studies have also reported reduced depressive symptoms with music therapy.

Therapy for depression varies from person to person, but a combination of therapies often works best. If you are struggling with depressive symptoms, talk to your doctor or therapist. Changes to your current plan or the addition of an alternative like music therapy may help you reach your goals.