World Music Therapy Day

Music Therapy: Tuning Up Your Mental Health with Prescribed Playlists

Anxious? Depressed? It might be time to switch up your playlist. We spoke to the pros about how music therapy can help with mental health.

Carcia Campbell graduated from university with a journalism degree in 2002, but after facing a lot of rejection while trying to find work in her field, she became clinically depressed. For eight months, the Toronto-based blogger and musician sought help from doctors, therapists and family members—but nothing seemed to work. It wasn’t until a friend “forced” her to go to a Duran Duran concert that her real healing began.

The moment the band’s hit song “Rio” came on, something in Campbell shifted. While everyone else danced, she cried. But she wasn’t sad. Instead, she felt a sense of peace because she used to listen to that song while sitting in the back seat of her mom’s Oldsmobile. “It took me back to my childhood and made me feel good—it made me feel safe,” she recalls. “Duran Duran’s concert probably saved my life.”

After the Duran Duran concert, Campbell went into a “Coldplay stage” where she listened to the band’s X&Y and Parachutes albums on repeat. “It was kind of like the vibrations of the music literally just came into my body and filled up all the empty spaces, which is what I think music does,” she says, adding that she hadn’t “sung a note” while she was depressed but began to sing again following the concert. “[Singing to myself] was a reminder that there was a life inside of me and I needed to find a purpose rather than feel sad all the time.”

Campbell credits music as well as psychotherapy with helping her to move on with her life. And now, through HerCastleGirls.com, the blog Campbell co-founded with her sister, Chantel, she is able to continue incorporating music into her life on a regular basis. “I could never imagine my life without singing or creating, talking about or listening to music.”

The powerful effect music has had on Campbell’s life is a relatable narrative. Music serves as a form of therapy for many or, as Toronto-based creative director Talya Macedo says, “ends up being a soundtrack to our lives.” Just think of the times you have used music to help change your mood or state of mind. You turn on Kanye West’s “Power” while going for a run, play Adele’s “Someone Like You” to get through a heartbreak or put on Mozart’s “Piano Concerto No. 23” to help you focus while you’re working.

Dreyuh Safo, a Toronto-based music marketing consultant, creates mood-based playlists on the side because she sees music as a form of escapism. “If you’re working on something, or even if you’re cleaning, you’re kind of always in your head…so music helps you organize your thoughts,” she says. “For me, I love Daniel Caesar’s ‘Freudian.’ When it starts going into the choir chorus…. I will sometimes fast-forward to there just to feel it in my chest because I’m like, ‘Oh, I need this release.’”

While creating our own playlists can be therapeutic, professionals have been using music to treat emotional and physical issues since the mid-1900s, when psychotherapists used it in their practices. In the ’40s, the first music therapy college training program was created in the United States, and by the mid-’50s, Canadian music therapists began to offer their unique services to treat emotional trauma.

“A lot of people intrinsically understand that music can be used to impact their mood,” says Elizabeth Mitchell, a registered psychotherapist and accredited music therapist who works at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., and Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont. “Music therapy hones in on that and is simply a more intentional process, conducted under the direction of a therapist.”

A session in music therapy can involve a therapist and a client creating a playlist that is designed for that person’s specific issues. “It may be designed to impact a particular mood, like depression or anxiety,” says Mitchell, adding that she listens to a calming playlist when going to the dentist. “Or maybe it’s for a specific purpose, like to help someone when they’re tempted to use a substance or are struggling to fall asleep at night.”

While we create our own playlists based on taste, music therapists work with their clients to curate lists based on a concept known as the iso-principle. This technique involves the therapist matching music to the current mood and physical state of the client and then presenting new music to incrementally or gradually encourage the desired change. For example, if a client is feeling sad, the playlist may begin with Coldplay’s “Fix You” to express how the client is feeling and finish with Florence + The Machine’s “Dog Days Are Over” to encourage motivation and a feeling of hope.

“If someone’s feeling depressed and they’d like to feel happier or more calm and grounded, sometimes it’s more helpful to start the playlist with a song that validates their sadness,” says Mitchell. “Then you work with the patient to incrementally change their mood by choosing songs that are a bit less sad, a little happier or calmer.”

But music therapy isn’t just about listening to prescribed music, explains Mitchell, adding that the experience is much more interactive. Sessions can involve a therapist and client making improvisational music together on instruments such as a piano, a guitar or a single drum or writing songs. But it goes far beyond a person banging on a drum to express their anger.

Andrea Lamont, a registered psychotherapist and certified music therapist who works at Holland Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital in Toronto, says she uses a variety of instruments, so clients can find a sound that resonates with them, and lets them express their feelings through that instrument. “I then meet and match their sound so it feels like they’re being heard and being recognized,” she says. “Creating music in the moment helps clients feel their emotions and stretches them to intensify or deepen the experience. We always safely bring them back to a place where we’re able to resolve any deeper or bigger emotions before the end of the session.”

For Mitchell, music therapy is about two people listening to each other, responding and expressing how they’re feeling. “The improvised music often has a lot of parallels to a conversation—it just doesn’t have to contain words,” she explains.

Lamont agrees. “I think there are a lot of timeless qualities to certain music that can really pull people together and make them feel like they’re connected and they’re part of something. We need that, socially.”

How music can help with your mental health:

“Music is a universal language that can connect people of all ages, cultures, backgrounds, genders, abilities and life issues,” says Sheila Lee, a certified music therapist based in Vancouver. “When words are unavailable, music is there as a powerful form of self-expression and communication.” She adds that studies have shown that engaging with music we enjoy can help increase our levels of oxytocin and dopamine (the “happy” hormones), release endorphins and decrease cortisol (the stress hormone).

“The more actively involved we are with music, the more benefits we can gain from it,” she says. On that note, here are seven tips from Lee on how to use music to reduce stress:

  1. Dedicate a special time and space for music. Find a place where you can be free from distractions—and silence your mobile devices for the time being.
  2. Pause, take some deep breaths and ask yourself “What am I aware of at the moment?”
  3. Choose a song or create some music to match your present state.
  4. Reflect on how the music affected you.
  5. Set an intention of how you want to feel or what you wish for yourself and others.
  6. Choose a song or create some music (sing, listen to or play it) that matches your intention.
  7. Keep whatever you wish to retain from the music and let it take away whatever you wish to release.