Healing Through Music: Depression Music Therapy Benefits And Uses

Medically reviewed by Nikki Ciletti, M.Ed, LPC
Updated May 15, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Music has been a part of human culture since the first human civilizations. It has been used in many ways to tell stories, connect with friends, serenade others, and provide joy. According to the World Health Organization, music is an essential part of art and expression that can allow individuals a greater capacity for empathy. 

In modern psychology, music is also used as a form of therapy, which has proven beneficial for various mental illnesses and symptoms, especially in group formats. One category of mental illness that may benefit from music therapy is depressive disorders. If you’re living with depression or symptoms of depression, learning more about the studies behind the effectiveness of depression music therapy can be beneficial. 

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What is depression music therapy? 

Music therapy for depression can take several forms, potentially including the following activities led by a music therapist: 

  • Singing 
  • Playing or learning an instrument
  • Improvised dancing to music 
  • Guided dance to music 
  • Watching a musician perform 
  • Playing songs on instruments or singing with a group of individuals
Music therapy can also be divided into four categories: compositional, improvisational, re-creative, and receptive music therapy.

Multiple studies have looked at how music therapy benefits depression specifically, with one study in 2017 showing that music therapy combined with traditional depression treatment was more effective than traditional treatment by itself in reducing depressive symptoms. 

The history of music therapy

The American Music Therapy Association states that the beginning of music therapy as a healing practice occurred as far back as the writings of the famous philosophers Aristotle and Plato. As an official profession in the U.S., music therapy began around World War I and II to support veterans experiencing trauma after the wars. Music therapy was also historically used to treat physical diseases in the 1800s and has since been used to treat neurological conditions like dementia. 

This type of treatment gained the most popularity in the 1900s. In 1903, a woman named Eva Vescellus founded the National Society of Musical Therapeutics, the first national organization for music therapy. However, it wasn’t until the 1930s that music therapy was nationally recognized as a profession when psychiatrist Willem van de Wall used music therapy interventions in state facilities. His work Music in Institutions was a pioneering text in helping professionals understand how to use music therapy. 


Modern music therapy 

In 1998, The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) was developed to merge the National Association for Music Therapy (NAMT) and the American Association for Music Therapy (AAMT). Another organization that ensures the credibility and training of music therapists is The Certification Board for Music Therapists, which helps trained therapists receive extra credentials showcasing their skills in music therapy practice. 

To become a music therapist in the US, individuals earn a bachelor’s degree or higher in music therapy and different music therapy methods from a program approved by AMTA. Students may learn music composition, music therapy, music theory, and psychology. They may also go through a certain number of hours of fieldwork and supervised experience. Although anyone with this experience may enter the field, music therapists may not be able to offer traditional talk therapy without meeting their state’s requirements for a therapist or counselor license on top of their music therapy license. 

Music therapists often do not hold the same credentials as traditional therapists. They may only be able to offer their services through music therapy sessions without offering advice or the same level of care as a traditional therapist. For this reason, many clients have both a music therapist and a traditional therapist. 

What are depressive disorders? 

There are several depressive disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5), including major depressive disorder, post-partum depression, and seasonal affective disorder, among others. Depression is often accompanied by depressive symptoms like the following: 

  • A prolonged sad or low mood 
  • A loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • Difficulty with motivation
  • Memory loss 
  • Sleep changes
  • Appetite changes
  • Feelings of apathy or emotional numbness
  • Desires to withdraw socially 
  • Difficulty partaking in hygiene habits or daily chores
  • Irritability 
  • Suicidal thoughts or behaviors

Benefits of a music therapy intervention for depression 

Below are a few of the most common benefits studied in treating depression through music therapy. 

Emotional expression 

Major depression can accompany periods of apathy, which might involve feeling numb or unable to express emotion. Studies have found that music has significant expressive qualities, allowing people to express emotions without talking about them out loud or understanding them cognitively. As it can be harmful to your physical and mental health to suppress emotions long-term, music therapy may be a way to release emotional pain or challenging feelings without overwhelming yourself. 

In addition, many people find music cathartic when they can feel the rhythm in their body and experience it in a sensory way. If you partake in music therapy involving improvised dance or musical creation, you may be able to further experiment with your creativity and expression through music by following your own rhythm. 

Effective coping 

Many people are able to learn coping mechanisms from music therapy. As stress and anxiety are often connected to depression, addressing all three at once can be beneficial. Studies show that active music therapy is associated with a more significant ability to cope with stress and tension. As an individual learns to use music as a coping mechanism, they may also feel motivated to try other coping mechanisms for depression. 

Building confidence 

The music therapy process for depression may also increase the confidence of those participating. Creating or participating in music can show individuals new skills they may not have been aware of. As they grow their musical abilities, they may feel more able to take control of their emotions, symptoms, and challenges. One study looked at music therapy methods in increasing self-confidence and found that it could be highly effective in improving self-esteem

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Counseling options for depression 

If you’re living with symptoms of depression or have been diagnosed with a depressive disorder, music therapy may be just one type of counseling available to you. Many people choose to partake in music therapy techniques alongside another form of treatment, like talk therapy with a cognitive-behavioral therapist. However, if you face barriers to in-person treatment like cost, scheduling, or availability, you might also try online therapy. 

Online counseling can be as effective as in-person therapy, with studies showcasing that it can be more effective for depression treatment in some cases. Through online therapy, you can reach out to a provider at a time that works for you from home and choose between phone, video, or live chat sessions. As depression can make it difficult to leave home or have the motivation to attend sessions, an online therapy session can make receiving support more accessible.


Music therapy has roots in a long history of social connection, expression, and culture. This type of counseling can be especially effective for many people experiencing symptoms of depression, stress, and anxiety. If you want to try music therapy, search for qualified music therapists in your area. In addition, if you find that you’d like to try talk therapy at the same time as your music therapy sessions, you can reach out to an online therapist for cost-effective supplementary mental healthcare.
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