Enhancing The Therapeutic Power of Music
By Tiffany Liang
Verbal psychotherapy is what we often think of when we hear “therapy.” However, therapists can run into challenges when using verbal psychotherapy with patients who suffer from major depression—the disorder has been linked to difficulty in verbal expression. So, how else can a patient connect with their therapist? One solution lies in a non-verbal, versatile, and creative outlet: music.
In improvisational psychodynamic music therapy (IMPT), the client is given free rein to spontaneously create some rhythm, tune, or song in any medium they choose. By encouraging self-expression and exploration, IMPT may foster creativity and strengthen emotional connections. Clients who receive IMPT in addition to their usual treatment have been found to experience almost twice the improvement in their depressive symptoms compared to those who only had their usual treatment. IMPT also significantly reduced anxiety and improved general function in clients.
Those are impressive results, but what if there are ways to make improvisational music therapy even more effective? A 2021 study published in Frontiers in Psychology tried to do exactly that. The team tested a method called resonance frequency breathing (RFB) in which individuals practice paced breathing at their unique “resonance frequency.” At this specific breathing speed, typically between 4.5 and 6.5 breaths per minute in adults, the heart, respiratory, and blood pressure rhythms synchronize. This synchronization activates the parasympathetic nervous system, prompting the body to relax.
The study had 70 Finnish participants aged 19-57 years old. Researchers used three different tests to assess the patients’ mental well-being. One of them was the global assessment of functioning (GAF), which measures how the participant’s mental health affects their daily life. Each music therapy session had two pianos and two drums, one set for the therapist, one for the client.
Participants who were assigned to practice 10 minutes of RFB at the beginning of each therapy session experienced a significant improvement in depressive symptoms and anxiety. While there were no significant differences in GAF scores, RFB clients did have consistently improved GAF scores compared to non-RFB clients. Meanwhile, listening homework, a method in which participants replayed recordings of their music improvisations on their own time, did not have significant effects, according to the study.
There are still plenty of unanswered questions: How does music therapy compare to other psychological therapies for clinical depression? What other ways could IMPT be enhanced? As this study has shown, there is promise in exploring unconventional types of therapy and testing how different methods synergize with each other.
- Erkkilä, J., Brabant, O., Hartmann, M., Mavrolampados, A., Ala-Ruona, E., Snape, N., Saarikallio, S., & Gold, C. (2021). Music therapy for depression enhanced with listening homework and slow paced breathing: A randomized controlled trial. Frontiers in Psychology, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.613821
- Aalbers, S., Fusar‐Poli, L., Freeman, R. E., Spreen, M., Ket, J. C., Vink, A. C., Maratos, A., Crawford, M., Chen, X., & Gold, C. (2017). Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 11. https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3
- Brabant, O., & Erkkilä, J. (2018). Enhancing improvisational music therapy through the addition of resonance frequency breathing: Common findings of three single-case experimental studies. Music Therapy Perspectives, 36(2), 224-233. https://doi.org/10.1093/mtp/miy009
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