Medicinal Music: Music Therapy as a Means to Treat Depressive Symptoms

Illustrated by Jennifer Broza

With the days getting shorter, the cold settling in and finals approaching, it can be easy to fall into the winter blues. Stress and anxiety can spike and sadness encroaches on our minds without welcome. However, recent studies in the field of music therapy may reveal some methods to help turn one’s mood around.

One psychological study examined the effects of music on fostering well-being for young people aged 15-25. The study found that music helped to increase positive relationship building, modify negative emotions, improve the mental state and deal with emotions in a healthy way [4]. It should be noted that since the study was based on surveying and interviews, it is unclear if some music may work better than others; the use of music was very individualized to each respondent. However, many reported that music created an improved sense of well-being. 

A review of both active (physically playing/making music) and receptive (listening and responding to music) music therapy concluded that, when added to regular treatment of depression, music therapy has a positive effect on reducing depressive symptoms [1]. Both actively making music and listening to music reduced anxiety symptoms and helped treat depression when paired with traditional treatment. 

Maratos et al.’s review of music therapy analyzes what specific aspects of music therapy can help depressive patients [3]. In the context of this article, a trained music therapist utilized active music therapy by playing music with a patient in an improvised fashion. The therapist assisted the patient in making music by providing a bass line, or accompaniment, to the patient’s improvised melody. Together, the therapist and patient built a positive relationship through the shared experience of making music together. For example, if the music therapist plays a satisfying chord progression overlaid with a cool melody by the patient, both the patient and therapist experience the shared joy of an enjoyable musical moment, further developing their positive relationship. The patient is also able to find meaning-making and pleasure through the satisfaction of creating an interesting melody or reaching the closure of a chord progression. Additionally, music therapy enables patients to engage in the physical activity of playing an instrument, and physical activity is one means of counteracting depressive symptoms.

Sometimes, the best medicine for a bad mood is a good night’s rest. One meta-analysis of five different studies looked into the use of music-assisted relaxation as a means to improve subjective sleep quality. The meta-analysis found a statistically significant improvement in sleep quality from listening to music before sleep [2].

I myself am a rather musical person. I listen to music all throughout my day, play the piano, sing and even produce my own songs in my free time. I wanted to recommend some of my go-to albums and songs for when I am in a bad mood, or just need a moment to reflect. Hopefully these songs can instill the same positivity or reflection in you as they do in me.

For Relaxing: One of my favorite albums for relaxation is “Getz/Gilberto”, a jazz bossa-nova album featuring the smooth saxophone of Stan Getz and the beautiful vocals of Astrud and Joao Gilberto, with a mix of English and Portuguese lyricism. All of the songs on the album are very soft and gentle and help to put me in a relaxed mood. Perhaps one could even improvise along to Stan Getz’s solos, akin to the active music therapy from Maratos et al.’s article. Another of my favorite albums for relaxation is “Solitude.” by Jinsang. Jinsang is a lofi hip-hop producer, and Solitude. is my favorite album of his. His use of vintage samples and great drum sounds creates a relaxed atmosphere that is conducive for studying. A third great album for relaxing is “a word becomes a sound – EP” by Kate Bollinger. Bollinger is a new artist who melds touches of alternative, jazz and pop together into a smooth, warm sound.

For Jamming: Music therapy studies often note that listening to music can be a great way to lift a mood or alter negative emotions [4]. I have three songs that always get my foot tapping and put a smile on my face. The first is “Funky Galileo” by Sure Sure. The song features tongue-in-cheek lyrics about heliocentrism and an infectious chorus. Another song is “Baby I’m Yours” by Breakbot. This song has been used in several memes throughout the years and is extremely upbeat. A third song that can help me out of a bad mood is “Dreaming” by Master Soul Boy. Master Soul Boy’s beautiful musical arrangement, driving beat and joyous background vocals and ad-libs throughout the song always lift my mood.

For Getting in my Feels: The review of music and well-being for youth I referenced earlier highlighted how youth often used music to get in touch with their feelings, often using lyricism to relate to their current situations [4]. I often find myself using music to fully experience my emotions; the album that does this best for me is “Apricot Princess” by Rex Orange County. Rex’s deeply personal lyrics and beautiful instrumentals create the perfect way for me to get in touch with my emotions. 

Music therapy, when paired with traditional treatment, has been demonstrated to help alleviate depressive symptoms through helping a patient cope with emotions, get better sleep, engage their brains and modify negative emotions and mental states. In the dark of winter and the grind of school, sometimes the best thing you can do is take a break, listen to your favorite song and take a deep breath. The best prescription for a bad mood may just be some good tunes. So put on your headphones and jam out. You may just feel better afterwards.

Edited by: Julia Bulova
Illustrated by: Jennifer Broza

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