Therapeutic Effects of Listening to and Making Music

Updated: Aug 6, 2021

By June Naureckas, CEI Intern 

In my previous blog on Music Therapy and Trauma, I gave a general overview of music therapy. Listening to music has different therapeutic benefits from writing or performing music, but all can aid children and adolescents in processing trauma.

Listening to Music When listening to music, familiar and preferred songs improve mood, while dissonant or “surprising” songs can worsen mood (Moore, 2013). In a study on music therapy in Midwestern domestic violence shelters, Eugenia Hernàndez-Ruiz found that listening to 20 minutes of participant-selected songs for five consecutive days increased sleep quality and reduced fatigue and anxiety for female residents.

Restful sleep and low levels of general anxiety both contributed to emotional resources for these women, leaving them better able to recover from trauma and abuse (Hernàndez-Ruiz, 2005).

Listening to music especially impacts adolescent mood and self-image because of music’s integrity to the chosen identity of many young people. – Adolescents form peer groups based on shared musical interests (Miranda & Claes, 2009). – Even after experiencing a major trauma or loss, adolescents still want to do the developmentally appropriate work of forming a coherent identity independent of their parents. (McFerran & Teggelove, 2011). – Sharing preferred music with peers lets participants explain who they are to each other and to themselves as well as develop strategies for coping and self-soothing.

Making Music When making music, singing and improvisation improve the mood of participants, but attempting to play complex songs worsens mood, possibly due to feelings of incompetence or inadequacy (Moore 2013). McFerran and Teggelove suggest that spontaneous music-making can ‘release emotional tension’ because musical structures closely resemble the subjective experience of emotions.

Just like listening to or sharing pre-existing songs, expressive music therapy works especially well in groups. Making music together improves ‘group cohesion’ ‘“ the ability to communicate effectively, work together, and trust each other ‘“ and shifts the focus of discussion from participants’ shared trauma to their shared talents and abilities (McFerran & Teggelove, 2011).

Gender Differences In McFerran and Teggelove’s 2011 study on music therapy for trauma, adolescent participants in music therapy workshops were divided based on gender. They shared their preferred music with each other, then broke into small groups to collaborate on making and recording a new musical piece. – Young female participants (years 7-9, ages 13 to 15) expressed improved self-confidence and a sense of achievement/accomplishment after completing the workshops and producing CDs of their songs to take home. – Male participants (years 7-9, ages 12 to 15) focused more on the enjoyment of the actual act of making music, with less verbal processing of emotional states and less concern for the quality of the final product. – Both groups of participants emphasized the fun they had while making music and the relief of being in a group where everyone had experienced the same trauma and would understand what they had to say.

Miranda and Claes (2009) conducted a similar study on music as a coping tool with Montréal adolescents, but found much stronger differences in gendered reactions to music. – In boys, listening to music for ’emotion-oriented’ coping i.e., ruminating on negative feelings, was linked to higher levels of depression. – In girls, listening to music for ‘problem-oriented’ coping, i.e.,listening to music while brainstorming constructive responses to problems, was linked to lower depression. – However, dissociation/listening to music to avoid thinking about problems is linked to higher depression in girls. No significant relationship was found between depression levels and music as an emotion-oriented coping tool. – Metal music listening in girls was also linked to higher depression levels, but only if their musical peer group was also high in depression. Preference for metal was not a predictor for depression levels on its own. The differences in the findings of these two studies may stem from the fact that the Australian adolescents participated in workshops supervised and facilitated by licensed music therapists, while the Canadian participants listened to music on their own or in peer groups and only spoke with researchers to respond to questionnaires. As with all tools for dealing with trauma, listening to and making music become more reliable with guidance from mental health professionals to prevent self-destructive behaviors.

References Hernandez-Ruiz, E. (2005). Effect of music therapy on the anxiety levels and sleep patterns of abused women in shelters. Journal of Music Therapy, 42(2), 140-158. 10.1093/jmt/42.2.140

Mcferran, K., & Teggelove, K. (2011). Music therapy with young people in schools: After the Black Saturday fires. Voices: A World Forum for Music Therapy, 11(1). 10.15845/voices.v11i1.285

Miranda, D., & Claes, M. (2009). Music listening, coping, peer affiliation and depression in adolescence. Psychology of Music, 37,2,, 215-233. doi.10.1177/0305735608097245

Moore, K. S. (2013). A systematic review on the neural effects of music on emotion regulation: implications for music therapy practice. Journal of Music Therapy, 50,3, 198-242. 10.1093/jmt/50.3.198