Music therapy and listening to music

Our rating
Music therapy 1 smiley:  This treatment is promising and may be useful. It has some evidence to support it, but more evidence is needed to be sure it works.
Music listening Question mark: This treatment has not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.


The rating system

  • 3 smiliesThese treatments are very useful. They are strongly supported as effective by scientific evidence.
  • 2 smiliesThese treatments are useful. They are supported by scientific evidence as effective, but the evidence is not as strong.
  • 1 smileyThese treatments are promising and may be useful. They have some evidence to support them, but more evidence is needed to be sure they work.
  • No smiley On the available evidence, these treatments do not seem to be effective.
  • Question markThese treatments have not been properly researched. It is not possible to say whether they are useful or not.
  • Exclamation MarkSafety or other concerns have been raised for the use of these treatments.

What is it?

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.

How does it work?

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.

Is it effective?

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 separate review which looked specially at music therapy for older adults with depression found that active music therapy was most effective form of music therapy in reducing depression symptoms.

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.

Are there any disadvantages?

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.

Where do you get it?

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 and downloads 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.

Key references

  • Aalbers S, Fusar‐Poli L, Freeman RE, Spreen M, Ket JC, Vink AC, et al. Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2017; (11).
  • Chan MF, Wong ZY, Thayala NV. The effectiveness of music listening in reducing depressive symptoms in adults: a systematic review. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. 2011; 19(6): 332-48.
  • Ibiapina ARdS, Lopes-Junior LC, Veloso LUP, Costa APC, Júnior FJGdS, Sales JCeS, et al. Effects of music therapy on anxiety and depression symptoms in adults diagnosed with mental disorders: a systematic review. Acta Paulista de Enfermagem. 2022; 35:1-10.

Last reviewed and updated: 11 September 2023