A Musical Mentality: Musical Therapy & Mental Health

By Aayushi Jain
8 min read

Music therapy is an evidence-based intervention that can be delivered via tech apps to improve patients’ mental health and wellbeing through playing, performing, composing, or listening to music. These interventions complement conventional mental health treatments because they provide a concrete activity for a patient to hone in on during moments of emotional distress. 

One popular music therapy app is Humm.ly, developed by musician and entrepreneur Joanna Yu. Growing up, Yu’s dad suffered from depression and a personality disorder, but she noticed that he seemed happier and calmer when music was playing. In 2017, after observing the powerful effects of music therapy on Alzheimer’s patients as a music therapy student, she launched Humm.ly, an app that combines music and mindfulness to aid those suffering from mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Now, Humm.ly has a 4.8-star rating on the iTunes App Store and incredible reviews that demonstrate its effectiveness. 

Another unique intervention that combines music and technology is Cove, a free mental health app that allows users to make their own music. In the app, users can add chords, melody, percussion, and instruments to a mood to create their own music in just a few minutes. By facilitating emotional expression, Cove helps individuals process and cope with complex emotions such as those associated with anxiety and depression. The clinical explanation behind such technology is surprisingly straightforward, as Dr. Neha Chaudhary, Co-Founder and Chief Research Officer of Stanford Brainstorm, explains that “music releases feel-good chemicals in the brain that can lessen anxiety and boost mood. It’s like a natural form of an antidepressant.”

Beyond apps, music therapy interventions are scientifically proven to help those struggling with other types of illnesses as well. A study by the Movement Disorders Research and Rehabilitation Centre at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario found that short-term use of vibroacoustic therapy improved motor skills in Parkinson’s disease patients. The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) contends that music therapy is particularly beneficial for individuals with autism as it assists in the development of verbal communication, speech, and language skills, stimulates cognitive functioning, and enhances auditory processing, sensory-motor, and fine motor skills. 

Another unique characteristic of music therapy interventions is the opportunity for participants to not only develop and practice a new hobby but also express themselves safely. The AMTA asserts that music therapy provides a non-threatening setting for individuals and their environments, facilitating relationships, learning, self-expression, and communication. Similarly, reviewers of the Cove app by Humane Engineering explain that the app is a relaxing, introspective experience that provides a plethora of opportunities for creative expression.

However, for patients suffering from severe mental illness (including severe cases of depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, etc.) a few tunes will not be adequate in providing comprehensive treatment. Although increased communication and self-expression are important for patients, severe mental disorders often require medication and special clinical services that an app or vibration therapy cannot provide. Rather, music therapy should be integrated into rehabilitation programs or combined with conventional psychological interventions for optimal impact. Dr. Gowri Aragam, Co-Founder and Chief Clinical Officer of Stanford Brainstorm, explains that “music therapy can be an extremely vital part of a patient’s overall treatment plan for their mental illness. While medication is used in conjunction with talk therapy to treat the patient’s symptoms, music therapy is a tool that can be incorporated to help the patient leverage and augment those gains in order to improve self-expression, an integral part of the healing process and the human experience.” Essentially, while music therapy offers a unique therapeutic approach for people in need of support during moments of emotional distress, clinicians and app developers ought to work together to identify and improve apps’ effectiveness both inside and outside of the mental health system. 

Aayushi Jain is a high school junior located in San Jose, California. She is a passionate mental health advocate and particularly interested in its intersections with technology, as seen by her several mental health innovations, including an app and a smart band for children with autism. Currently, she serves as an intern at Brainstorm: The Stanford Lab for Mental Health Innovation. You can follow Aayushi at @aayushijain21 on Instagram.

Stories, tips, and resources from others who have experience with anxiety can be found below:
5 Ways To Boost your Mood Creatively During Quarantine
The Ultimate List of Helpful and Supportive Resources for LGBTQ+ Students
The Young Introvert’s Social Survival Guide
5 Ways to Feel Less Anxious When You’re a Sensitive Person
Mental Health is a Team Sport: I Have Anxiety/Depression and my Husband Doesn’t, But We Both Fight It.

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