There are two main types of music therapy, active and receptive. In active music therapy, the client is involved in creating or playing music themselves. Receptive music therapy involves listening to music for relaxation or to change mood. Both types are done under the guidance of a qualified music therapist, who are trained professionals who hold a master’s degree.
People may also simply listen to music that they enjoy to help lift their mood. This is generally called “music listening” and doesn’t require a therapists input.
Music therapy may work in different ways, depending on what type is used. Receptive music therapy may promote relaxation and mindfulness, or encourage reminiscence. Both types may help the patient to develop a supportive relationship with their therapist. This offers an outlet to express feelings or thoughts they may otherwise have difficulty expressing.
Music listening may boost mood by influencing the areas of the brain that control emotion. How it does this is not understood.
A systematic review of five studies indicated that music therapy (with a therapist) may have a small, short term positive effect on depression. However, the studies included in the review were of poor quality.
A review of music listening (without a therapist) found that participants experienced a reduction in depression symptoms from music listening in 11 of the 17 studies reviewed. However, not all of these studies included people with a primary diagnosis of depression and some studies were of poor quality.
More studies of better quality are needed to fully understand the effectiveness of music therapies for clinical depression.
There is some cost associated with seeing a music therapist, which may not be covered by Medicare. Otherwise, there are no known disadvantages associated with music therapy or listening to music.
Music therapists can be found in the yellow pages. Sessions of music therapy can be delivered individually or in groups, and may involve weekly sessions over a few months.
Music CDs can be bought from shops or online. Music streaming services such as Spotify are also available. You can also choose to listen to any music you enjoy on radio, CD or live concerts.
There is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend music therapy as a treatment for depression.
Last reviewed and updated: 1 December 2016