Music therapy – when combined with standard
treatment – is effective in helping people with depression,
according to a Finnish study.
Researchers from the University of Jyväskylä believe that making
music can help people express their emotions and reflect their
inner experiences. Their findings are published in the August issue of the
British Journal of Psychiatry.
The research team, led by Professor Jaakko
Erkkilä and Professor Christian Gold, recruited 79 people aged
between 18 and 50 years old who had been diagnosed with depression.
33 of the participants were offered 20 music therapy sessions, in
addition to their usual treatment for depression. In Finland,
standard treatment for depression includes medication
(antidepressants), 5-6 individual psychotherapy sessions and
psychiatric counselling. The other 46 participants just 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. 29 (88%) attended at least 15 sessions. The
participants in both groups were followed up at 3 months and 6
months and assessed for symptoms of depression and anxiety.
The researchers found that, after 3 months,
the participants who received music therapy showed greater
improvement than those who received standard care only. They had
significantly fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, and scored
better on general functioning. Although improvements still remained
after 6 months, the difference between the groups was no longer
Professor Gold said: “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.
Professor Erkkilä said: “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. Our findings now
need to be repeated with a larger sample of people, and further
research is needed to assess the cost-effectiveness of such
The research has been welcomed by UK experts.
Writing in an editorial in the same issue of the British
Journal of Psychiatry, Dr Mike Crawford, Reader in Mental
Health Services Research in the Centre for Mental Health, Imperial
College London, said: “This is a high-quality randomised 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.”
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Erkkilä J, Punkanen M, Fachner J, Ala-Ruona E, Pöntiö I, Tervaniemi M, Vanhala M and Gold C. Individual music therapy for depression: Randomised controlled trial. British Journal of Psychiatry 2011; 199: 132-139. Maratos A, Crawford MJ and Procter S. Music therapy for depression: it seems to work, but how? British Journal of Psychiatry 2011; 199: 92-93