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 university degree.
People may also simply listen to music that they enjoy to help lift their mood, which doesn't require input from a therapist. Listening to music is an example of a pleasant activity.
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.
Listening to music may also boost mood by influencing the areas of the brain that control emotion. How it does this is not understood.
A systematic review of nine studies found that music therapy (with a therapist) may have a small, short term positive effect on depression. These studies found that people with depression who participated in music therapy in addition to their usual treatment (such as antidepressant medication) had better outcomes than people who simply had their usual treatment.
A review of studies in which participants simply listened to music (without a therapist) found that participants experienced a reduction in depression symptoms from listening to music in 11 of the 17 studies reviewed. However, not all of these studies included people who had clinical depression, and some studies were of poor quality. More evidence of better quality is needed to understand if listening to music can help 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 or online at the Australian Music Therapy Association website. 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.
Music therapy, under the guidance of a qualified therapist, may lead to short-term beneficial outcomes for depression.
While listening to music can be an enjoyable activity, there is not enough good evidence at this stage to recommend simply listening to music as a treatment for depression.
Last reviewed and updated: 1 November 2019