Can Online Music Therapy Improve Your Mental Health? What Does Research Say

If you happened to stumble upon this article, you should be no stranger to telehealth, video conferences or even online therapy. This article aims to answer all your questions regarding online music therapy: effectiveness, advantages, disadvantages, and how you can leverage modern technology to suit your lifestyle and health needs.

Note: this article is based on my research proposal in my final year of master degree of Creative Music Therapy on the future of online music therapy in 2021 (which I presented in the Australian Music Therapy Association’s 2021 National Conference). Excuse the slightly-scholarly tone, I need to reference all the research papers you know? Feel free to jump to specific sections that you’re interested in.

The pandemic that started in 2020 caused a major disruption in our lifestyles and behaviours. In particular, the demand for high quality teleconferencing and online therapy reached the highest in history due to people working from home, financial and mental distress, and social isolation (Liu et al., 2020). The telehealth industry is booming.

Telehealth can be described as a range of comprehensive health care services delivered through telecommunication technologies between two distant parties (Sikka et al., 2019).

As the opportunities to access the healthcare system grow, people also have higher expectations towards healthcare delivery, like convenience and perceived usefulness (Maheu et al., 2012; Tsai et al., 2019; Musiat et al., 2014).

The recognition of music therapy and popularity of online therapies rose during the pandemic among the younger generation as they experienced high levels of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, increasing the demand for alternative therapies and interventions to improve mental health.

 

You can read more about the history, development and research about music therapy here.

🎙 Current Challenges of Online Music Therapy

Believe it or not, it’s August 2022 as I’m writing this, but the major challenge of delivering music therapy online is the feasibility of making music in real time between music therapists and clients.

Latency and sound quality might cause extra frustration compared to online talking therapies. While most music therapists reported switching their work online during the pandemic and have experienced both success and challenges (Gaddy et al., 2020), there is not enough published research about music therapy tele-interventions at the moment to determine the efficacy and effectiveness of online music therapy.

⚖️ Does Music Therapy Actually Work? Investigating the Effectiveness and Ways to Optimise Online Music Therapy to Improve Mental Health

Given the rising trend of telehealth, mental health awareness and the social-emotional behaviours embedded inherently in music (Saarikallio, 2019), this article aims to evaluate the effectiveness of online music therapy combined with psychoeducation and social networking in: A) reducing depression and anxiety symptoms, and B) improving wellbeing among emerging adults.

My research proposal set the foundation of the business model of Strike A Chord by answering these 3 research questions:

  1. Is online music therapy effective in depression and/or anxiety treatment and relapse prevention?
  2. How can online music therapy be optimised to reduce depression and anxiety with emerging adults?
  3. Can online music therapy increase young adults’ engagement, sense of hope and social wellbeing in their mental health recovery journey?

 

We will first look into what current literature says about the effectiveness of music therapy in treating anxiety or depression symptoms, the importance of social support, the advantages of online interventions and how online music therapy can be optimised to leverage and incorporate all the benefits found in both synchronous and asynchronous treatments. A 12-week online music therapy intervention based on the moderated online social therapy (MOST) is proposed for further research.

🎹 Effectiveness of Online Music Therapy on Depression and Anxiety Disorders

Mental Health Benefits of Music Therapy

TL;DR version: to spare you from the details, here are what research pointed to:

  • Music therapy is regarded as the best alternative therapy alone or added to standard care to support adults with mental illnesses, compared to psychotherapy, verbal relaxation or no treatment (Lee & Thyer, 2013)
  • Clients build awareness, self-esteem and confidence through the creation process, which can enhance personal wellbeing (Clements-Cortés & Yu, 2021)
  • Music therapy can be tailored to address clients’ physical, emotional and cognitive needs, which helps foster hope, motivation and purpose
  • Music can facilitate meaningful connection and elicit pro-social interactions, which serve as important building blocks in young people’s mental health recovery journey (Wang & Agius, 2018)

 

Further reading: you might not know these 5 benefits music therapy can bring

Social Support and Client-Therapist Relationship

We often neglect the importance and significance of social support. Human beings are tribe animals. We look out for each other. The pandemic highlighted the significance of social interaction in both real life and the virtual world that we should always strive to build and maintain. Social recovery serves a crucial purpose in fostering growth, especially regarding mental health issues brought by the pandemic.

And in music therapy, the client-therapist relationship is crucial for growth and recovery. It’s all about using music as a tool, building a safe space for clients to explore emotions and draw on strengths to create change.

Social Support and Client-Therapist Relationship

  • Studies have shown that strong social support can decrease the functional impairment and increase the prospect of recovery in patients with depression (Ozbay et al., 2007)
  • Pay attention to how loneliness can lead to stress and unhealthy habits, thus physical health

 

Research highlighted the importance of engagement in mental health care settings. So how can clinicians facilitate and increase engagement with people who are battling with anxiety and/or depression with low motivation and self-esteem in a virtual world?

Benefits of Online Interventions

Let’s look at how the advancement of technology broke down traditional barriers for people seeking mental health support in recent years.

Convenience and Flexibility

  • More choices and flexibility: clients can choose what suits them the most based on cost, location, time, language, available social support or other personal preferences (Maheu et al., 2012)
  • Telehealth broke down geographical barriers for both therapists and clients
  • Music therapy can reach rural areas or even countries without sufficient healthcare funding or knowledge

Destigmatisation and Empowerment

  • Online interventions serve as alternatives for help-seeking young adults who are deterred by stigma (Wallin et al., 2018)
  • Asynchronous interventions e.g. online modules, self-paced courses can facilitate clients’ independence and self-management (van der Vaart et al., 2014), which might also be beneficial as an addition to usual therapy and care (Griffiths et al., 2010)
  • Cole et al. (2021) mentioned that the technological challenges increased empathy and prosocial behaviours in group settings

Benefits of Online Interventions

  • Young people’s social and emotional needs can be addressed in group online music therapy through improvisation or song writing (Carr et al., 2011; Agres et al., 2021)
  • The extra waiting time derived from latency provided opportunities to train and demonstrate patience and respect, which are fundamental in social interaction
  • Participants expressed gratitude in still being able to connect with each other meaningfully through online music groups during the lockdown (Talmage, 2020)

Online Music Therapy, Engagement and Social Support

Mini conclusion:

  • Music therapy, online interventions and peer support have all shown results in reducing anxiety and/or depression symptoms
  • Online therapy programs with ongoing therapist support may increase engagement and completion rates (Sharry et al., 2013)
  • Programs can help reduce loneliness and social isolation if participants can interact with each other and with clinicians (Trevino et al., 2020)
  • Going online created new contexts for “community”

Challenges of Online Music Therapy

It’s not all sunshine and rainbows. Let’s talk about some challenges of online music therapy in detail. Is it only a short-term solution to respond to the global pandemic?

Latency

  • The most common concern found in literature regarding making music. To make the experience more seamless, call-and-response and empathic improvisation can be used (Clements-Cortés and Yu , 2021) to leverage the extra time and space (in delay) to allow clients to process emotions and make sure their voices are heard
  • Latency can encourage clarity and succinctness which might be helpful for both therapists and clients to express themselves, thus build a more meaningful relationship

Emotional Connection

  • Increased difficulty for therapists to observe non-verbal cues, subtle facial expressions and body language
  • Especially in music therapy, musical interaction is a dynamic and complex process that involves exquisite exchanges which can be easily overlooked in online format (Agres et al., 2021)

The Absence of a Physical, Shared Therapeutic Space

  • The risk of not having a physical therapeutic space nor clear boundaries
  • “Digital depression”: when both the clients and therapists might experience increased exhaustion and fatigue via digital communication than face-to-face sessions
  • Therapists must pay extra effort in facilitating virtual environments for clients through demonstrating thoughtfulness, creativity and interactivity (Domash, 2014)

I’ve come across and can relate to all these challenges listed above. To me, music is a tool, and going online is a medium for therapy. I prioritise creating a safe and strong relationship with my clients so that they can thrive. That means optimising the experience based on both our preferences and communication styles.

⚡️ Optimisation of Online Music Therapy: Logistics, Tools and Interventions

Now we understand the benefits and challenges of online music therapy, we can design tools and workflows in order to optimise the therapy experience.

Videoconferencing

  • Therapists to ensure the quality of real-time online therapy through establishing Internet connection stability, good video resolution, audio quality and audio-to-video synchronisation
  • Therapists to enhance user experience by doing further music technology training
  • Some argue online therapy shall never completely substitute in-person therapy but it’s subject to further research

Creating a Therapeutic Space

  • Therapists to establish a sense of security in a virtual world in order to provide a safe space (Knott & Block, 2020)
    • Additional manuals of portal logins, privacy and safety protocol and videoconferencing tips can be supplied to clients as extra support in order to deliver the most seamless telehealth experience possible
  • Clients’ personal preferences should be taken into account as well, e.g. phone calls and texting instead of videoconferencing to empower clients and validate their feelings and opinions
  • Therapists might consider implementing risk detection and management in autonomous e-mental health systems to bring clients back to human care when necessary (Tielman et al., 2019)

Monitoring Tools/Applications for Clinicians During Sessions

  • Use of computerised text analysis, such as automatic speech recognition software, to assist in detecting users’ thinking styles, emotional state, focus and social relationships (Amichai-Hamburger et al., 2014)
  • Applications e.g. Music eScape to equip young people with emotion regulation skills in real time (Eysenbach, 2011)

Monitoring Tools/Applications for Clients Outside Sessions

  • Use of mood trackers and fitness apps and devices to provide data and insights to clients’ health progress outside sessions

Asynchronous Psychoeducation

Mental health education can be viewed as early intervention and suicide prevention. It is crucial for clients to expand their toolkits in emotion regulation and coping strategies – which can be learnt through self-paced courses.

In music therapy, asynchronous psychoeducation might include mindfulness and designing playlists for wellbeing purposes.

💛 Strike A Chord: A Blended Music Therapy Model

The current literature regarding online music therapy revealed a need for a more comprehensive and flexible approach, while taking clients’ preferences and personalities into account (van der Vaart et al., 2014).

This is how Strike A Chord Music Therapy is born – it is a blended music therapy model based on moderated online social therapy (MOST).

While clients participate in weekly 30-minute individual online music therapy sessions, they have the option to take their mental health journey further by joining the 6-week asynchronous psychoeducation course Find Your Forte as well. I’m in the process of building an online community on Telegram where clients can share about their journey and support each other anonymously.

Your Mental Health Journey with Strike A Chord Music Therapy

1 You come across this website and are interested in trying music therapy

2 Go to Session and Rates on menu bar, book your 1st free session with me

3 You will be prompted to the client portal

4 Select your service accordingly (new vs existing client)

5 Select your preferred date and time

6 Create account on portal to confirm booking

7 You’re all booked! Now check your email.

8 You will be given a unique link for our meeting. Same link for first and online sessions. The best part? You don’t need to download any teleconference apps. Just click on the link to get started 😉

9 Bring any resources you think will benefit you and the session (songs, instruments, diaries). HAVE FUN!

Tips for YOU to Maximise Sessions and Modules

While the article mainly illustrated therapists’ responsibility to ensure smooth, secure sessions for clients, clients still own 100% responsibility for their mental health journey.

To get the most out of your music therapy sessions and mental health modules, bring anything that you might find helpful to your therapist, e.g. journal entries, songs ideas, instruments. It’s important to be present and authentic in the session. Your therapist will hold you accountable, but ultimately you are the one paying effort FOR yourself.

💭 A Question for You

How do you feel about online music therapy after reading these research findings? Curious? Sceptical? Wondering over the fence? Feel free to check out all the articles on this website for immediate actions you can take to improve mental health even if you are not ready to see a therapist yet. But if you’re ready, click here to book your first free session today. Kick start your mental health journey now.

Hope to see you on the other side! 😉