A new Finnish study finds that combining music therapy with a standard treatment for depression — medication, plus psychotherapy and counseling — improves patient outcomes.
Researchers believe the addition of music therapy allows people to better express their emotions and reflect on their inner feelings.
The study is published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä recruited 79 people between the ages of 18 and 50 years old who had been diagnosed with depression. Thirty-three of the participants were offered 20 music therapy sessions, in addition to their usual treatment for depression.
In Finland, standard treatment antidepressants drug therapy, five to six individual psychotherapy sessions and psychiatric counselling.
The other 46 participants received standard treatment, and acted as the control group.
The one-on-one music therapy sessions each lasted 60 minutes and took place twice a week. Trained music therapists helped each participant to improvise music using percussion instruments and drums.
On average, each participant attended 18 music therapy sessions. Twenty-nine individuals (88 percent) attended at least 15 sessions. The participants in both groups were followed up at three and six months and assessed for symptoms of depression and anxiety.
In the final analysis, researchers discovered that after three months of participation, individuals who received music therapy demonstrated significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and scored better on general functioning.
Although improvements still remained after six months, the difference between the groups was no longer statistically significant.
Co-researcher Christian Gold, Ph.D., elaborated on the study findings:
“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. 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.”
Music therapy also appeared to provide a method to allow people to let go, or to release suppressed feelings.
Co-researcher Jaakko Erkkilä, Ph.D., reported, “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.”
Given the success of the investigation, researchers say the study needs to be repeated with a larger sample of people, and that further research is needed to assess the cost-effectiveness of such therapy.
Outside experts believe this study shows that music therapy is an effective adjunct to traditional therapy and improves outcomes. Writing in an editorial in the same issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry, Mike Crawford, M.D., said, “This is a high-quality randomized 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.”
Source: University of Jyväskylä