Scientific research has begun to explore why music appears to have such a strong effect on health and wellness, particularly mental health, where sounds can serve as a conduit to lift someone’s mood, help them reflect and reduce stress, anxiety and depression.
When she was 14, Isobell’s treatment for anxiety looked very different. At the time, she was seeing a psychiatrist. But after trying two different medications, she felt that they “weren’t really doing anything.”
She was starting to feel discouraged, until her doctor — knowing that she loved to play the guitar and write songs — recommended that she try music therapy.
For the past two years, she has traveled to Mount Sinai nearly every week, despite her packed schedule as a senior at one of the most selective public high schools in New York City.
Isobell, who asked to be referred to only by her first name to protect her privacy, no longer takes medication.
Singing creates space to release emotions that can be difficult to describe, she explained.
Even just listening to a song and interpreting the meaning “opens up so much in my mind,” she added. “I feel like I always draw a blank when people ask me, ‘What’s up? What’s going on?’” But music therapy helps her become more introspective.
Here’s a look at how music therapy is used as a psychotherapy tool.
How can music therapy improve mental health?
Research has shown that adding music therapy to a patient’s regular treatment, like medication and psychotherapy, can improve depressive symptoms when compared with standard treatment alone. Studies also indicate that music therapy can decrease anxiety levels and improve day-to-day functioning in people with depression.
More studies are needed to better understand why, but scientists do know that music engages multiple regions of the brain, like the limbic system, which helps process emotions and recollections. This may be partly why music is known to bring back memories.
Seeking to explore that connection, Amy Belfi, an associate professor at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, designed a study that compared the memories evoked by popular songs with those summoned by images of celebrities. She found that the music was much more likely to bring up vivid autobiographical details than the images.