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Music’s Effect on Depression

By Mairenn Welsh


The Power of Music to Reduce Stress


Music’s ability to heal has been studied for many years. It has been found to have many benefits, such as the reduction of stress. Stress has a biological impact on the human body; it can induce the release of hormones and chemicals that affect the brain, such as cortisol.


Cortisol, also known as the stress hormone, can be helpful when we need to respond quickly to specific situations, but when an excess amount is released at an inappropriate time, issues can arise such as the development of depression. When we are stressed, our heart rate and blood pressure increase and force the adrenal glands to produce cortisol. Music can lower our heart rate, and subsequently, cortisol levels, while triggering the release of endorphins, which play a role in stress reduction.


It is important to understand how music is processed in our brains. Music signals are sent to different parts of the cerebral cortex, and these regions detect different components of the music, such as tone, pitch, rhythm. The brain processes this information and puts it all together in a way that can manipulate our emotions and entire body.


The reduction of stress isn’t the only benefit of music. As previously mentioned, it reduces cortisol levels. Since cortisol and stress are interconnected, it can also reduce burnout from stressful situations like work or school. Also, people who have trouble sleeping due to stress can benefit due to the distraction from the stressors. Further, cortisol is connected to anxiety, which when treated with music, can reduce significantly. It also has benefits when used to treat mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, and depression. When used to treat depression, not only do depression levels reduce, but confidence and motivation increase. Music can also be combined with meditation to relax and destress even more. Due to the slow tempo of music used during meditation, heart rate can reduce, which again leads to the reduction of cortisol and ultimately, stress.


Music therapy is different than simply listening to music, but can be more beneficial in certain situations. Music therapy involves therapists who will develop sessions based on the need of the patient. There are different types of music therapy, such as :

  • simply listening to music

  • playing it oneself

  • composing or writing songs.

The purpose is to help the patient work through their issues. It can even be combined with other types of therapy, such as speech or physical therapy, to improve the results.

While music is helpful when treating mental pain and issues, it can also be used to treat physical pain. It is frequently used during surgery to decrease cortisol levels, which will decrease post-operation pain. This is due to music’s ability to distract the brain from pain and instead create positive emotions.


Music doesn’t just help people who are suffering from mental health issues, it can help people who are simply trying to focus. Studies have found that when listening to music, focus improves, and people are more easily able to remember information.

Music seems to be connected to the central nervous system. The sympathetic (fight or flight) and parasympathetic (rest and digest) parts of the central nervous system are automatic, so they can operate even in unwanted situations. When the sympathetic nervous system isn’t regulated after a stressful situation, music can help to reactivate the parasympathetic nervous system, which will bring the body back to homeostasis.

While it’s understood that all music can be beneficial, certain types may be more fit for certain situations. Depending on what someone may be wanting to feel, they may listen to different genres of music, such as classical music to calm themselves or rap music for motivation.


Overall, music won’t single-handedly cure all issues that someone may be facing, but when combined with other forms of therapy or medication, it can be incredibly valuable.


What is Music Therapy, and How Does it Work?

Music therapy is an alternative to more traditional forms of therapy, that uses music to help someone with issues that they may be having. It has been found to be valuable for improving mood, confidence, self-awareness, and many other cognitive processes. There are different forms of music therapy that vary from listening to music or creating it, however improvisation tends to be involved, and there is always interaction between the patient and the therapist.


Different elements of music affect different parts of the brain; key parts are the frontal lobes, which process emotional signals from the music, and the nucleus accumbens or reward centre, which can produce physical pleasure.


The idea of music therapy isn’t new. It has been found to be used all the way back in the times of Ancient Greece. Even though it has been used for some time, it only became an accepted type of therapy by the 1940’s.


Although different forms of therapy can be suitable for differing issues, music therapy can be more useful in certain situations. For example, since verbal communication isn’t needed, it could be useful for people who have trouble with verbal communication, such as dementia patients or people with a mental health condition. It is also useful for people who are bedridden or are uncomfortable leaving their home, because it can be brought to the patient. A patient will also learn new skills and coping mechanisms that they can use in their everyday life, therefore it can be beneficial for the rest of their lives.


There are various benefits that are exclusive to music therapy. Playing music yourself and analyzing lyrics can aid the improvement of many things such as memory, coordination, perseverance, and can help people process emotions, experiences, and memories. It also spreads culture. People can explore music from any culture and understand the history of that music and culture. Finally, it is a great way to express oneself. Many people have trouble expressing themselves with words, but music gives them a different expressive outlet.

Music has considerable effects on certain mental disorders. It can reduce blood pressure and heartbeat, while also controlling the amount of stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline, that are being released. The combination of these two things can reduce anxiety almost immediately. It also releases dopamine and endorphins, which are hormones that make people feel happy and relieve pain, which are crucial for relieving symptoms of depression.


Why Music Therapy is a Depression Treatment

Depression is a debilitating mental illness that affects millions of people. Medication is usually used as treatment, but there are alternatives such as music therapy.

The use of music therapy dates all the way back to Ancient Greece, but modern music therapy was used during the World Wars. Soldiers suffered from various mental issues, but doctors found that their conditions improved when hearing music.


No skills are required to partake in music therapy. It simply gives patients a safe place to express and explore themselves, while giving them a sense of control, which leads to a feeling of accomplishment.


There are two types of music therapy, receptive and active.

  1. Receptive music therapy is simply listening to music that the therapist thinks best fits their needs.

  2. Active music therapy is physically creating music. Usually, improvisation is used to help the patient express their emotions.

Music therapy is different than just listening to music because a therapist trained in treating depression selects specific music for each patient. Although medication can be useful in the treatment of depression, it has been found that the effectiveness increases when combined with music therapy. Brain images have shown that music therapy has been found to activate parts of the brain that control emotional states: it lowers anxiety, increases motivation and self-esteem, and can even improve relationships.


There are three main theories as to why music therapy works. The first is that playing music gives the patient a sense of meaning. It can help people who have difficulty expressing themselves by giving them a new way of expression, while also experiencing the pleasure that comes from the music. Another theory is that simply the physical act of playing music can improve symptoms, since it engages the body, and physical activity has been found to ward off depressive symptoms. The last theory is that it is interactive. The patient can communicate in different with the therapist in different ways and express their emotions without having to use words.



Can Music Help Depression?

The concept of music therapy has been used as far back as the times of Ancient Greece. Studies have shown that the large majority of people diagnosed with depression that partake in music therapy show significant improvement after continual treatment. It has many effects that influence depression symptoms such as the increase of self-esteem, decreased anxiety, and a safe emotional release.

There are two types of music therapy: active and passive. Active therapy involves the patient and therapist creating music themselves, typically using improvisation. Passive therapy involves simply listening to music. The therapist will use the music to explore emotions that may have been evoked. There are theories of why music therapy is so beneficial, but the baseline is that it involves a therapeutic environment that allows people to express themselves. It has biological effects on the body, such as a reduction of breathing and heart rate, and increased levels of feel-good hormones. This can influence many parts of a human being, especially individuals with depression, such as self-esteem, communication, and a general improvement in functioning. Psychiatrist Michael Crawford credits the effectiveness of music therapy to the fact that it engages the body, since physical activity can prevent depression. It can also help people interact, which is a biological need.

Every part of the brain is involved when experiencing music, even parts that aren’t usually accessible. The bottom line is that music seems to strengthen the brain and improve overall functioning, especially when combined with other treatment methods.


What are the Benefits of Music Therapy?

Music therapy, which can be used alone or with other therapeutic methods, started to be used after World War II. There are several major health benefits such as the reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression, the improvement of healing, self-expression, and communication, and the reduction of symptoms of many diseases and disorders. Clearly, music therapy is very broad and can be used for whatever the patient needs. Usually, patients are trying to improve certain skills, including communication skills, social skills, and emotional skills. These are common goals with music therapy because music influences people’s emotions, communication, and perception. Brain imaging studies have shown that music has effects on many different areas of the brain, including the limbic and paralimbic structures, which are involved in emotional processing. Music’s effect on the peripheral system is still being studied, but since it seems to affect other systems such as the autonomic and endocrine system, researchers believe that it can be used to treat certain disorders.


As previously mentioned, music therapy is used for various issues. It can be used for physical rehabilitation, to improve motor function in Parkinson’s disease patients, or even just to help patients struggling with treatment. It has also been found to reduce dementia, asthma, physical pain, and help children with autism improve their communication.


There is a certain approach called the Nordoff-Robbins approach which involves physically making music. This approach acknowledges that anyone can make music and is used to develop skills and self-awareness.


Music has a relaxing effect on the mind and body. It can physically relax muscles, which subsequently relaxes the mind. This relaxation that music provides is magnified when combined with other activities, such as yoga or meditation.


There are several different methods used in music therapy sessions, such as singalong, blackout song writing, musical hangman, and blues song writing. Singalong can be used in individual or group sessions, and it is essentially singing along to songs that the therapist selects. With blackout song writing, the patient receives multiple songs that they may relate to, and select lyrics from the songs to create their own. Musical hangman is a normal game of hangman, however the patient must think of songs that start with the letter that they guess, and then listen to the chosen songs. Finally, blues song writing involves the patient thinking of a solution to a problem they may be having, and making it into a song. There are many other activities that may be done in music therapy, such as improvisation, dancing, or even music trivia.


There are different types of music therapy, active and passive. Active involves physical engagement, while passive involves simply listening to music. Music therapists using passive methods might give their patients homework using certain technologies. For example, some platforms allow audio to be sent to the client’s phone, so they would be told to listen at home.


Music therapy can be used in schools to improve children’s behaviour and skills, such as academic and problem-solving skills. It can even help with certain classes, like math and writing. Most importantly, it enhances self-expression, self-esteem, and communication skills, by encouraging the children to create their own songs, or even creating their own music therapy program. This therapy can be very helpful for children who have developmental delays or trauma, or who are anxious, depressed, or chronically ill. There are several methods that can be used to make therapy more fun, such as music bingo, where songs are used instead of numbers, or Pictionary, where the participants must draw song titles.


References

Collins, D. (2021, August 18). Can listening to music reduce stress? research, benefits, and genres. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/stress/the-power-of-music-to-reduce-stress


Craig, H. (2022, November 26). What are the benefits of music therapy? PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/music-therapy-benefits/


Lewis, B. (2019, June 15). Can music help depression? Mind Body Seven. https://www.mindbody7.com/news/2018/1/10/can-music-help-in-treating-depression


Scientific reasons music therapy is the depression treatment you've been looking for. Incadence Music Therapy Blog. (n.d.). https://www.incadence.org/post/scientific-reasons-music-therapy-is-the-depression-treatment-youve-been-looking-for


Zoppi, L. (2020, November 3). What is music therapy, and how does it work? Medical News Today. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/music-therapy


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