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Classical Music an Effective Antidepressant

• August 02, 2010 • 5:05 PM

New research from Mexico finds music of Bach and Mozart helps ease the pain of people suffering from depression.

The Mozart Effect — the notion that listening to classical music will turn your infant or toddler into an intellectual titan — has been largely debunked. But a growing body of research suggests music can play an important role in certain aspects of health care, including pain management.

A newly published study from Mexico reports repeated listening to certain classical works — including one by Mozart — helps ease the debilitating symptoms of clinical depression.

“Music offers a simple and elegant way to treat anhedonia, the loss of pleasures in daily activities,” the research team, led by Miguel-Angel Mayoral-Chavez of the University of Oaxaca, reports in the journal The Arts in Psychotherapy.

Following up on a small number of recent studies, the Mexican team conducted an experiment on 79 patients of an Oaxaca clinic. The 14 men and 65 women, ranging in age from 25 to 60, were diagnosed as suffering from low to medium levels of depression. They were not taking any medications for their condition.

All participated in an eight-week program. Half the group took part in a 30-minute weekly counseling session with a psychologist; the other half listened to a 50-minute program of classical music each day. Their recorded concert featured two baroque works (Bach’s Italian Concerto and a Concerto Grosso by his contemporary, Archangelo Corelli) and Mozart’s Sonata for Two Pianos. Each week, participants reported their levels of depression-related symptoms using a standard scale.

“We found positive changes at the fourth session in the music therapy group, with the participants showing improvement in their symptoms,” the researchers report. “Between the seventh and eighth weekly sessions, we observed improvement in 29 participants, with a lack of improvement in four. Eight abandoned the group.”

In contrast, among those who had experienced talk therapy, only 12 subjects showed improvement by Week Eight, compared to 16 who showed no improvement. Ten abandoned the study.

“Our results show a statistically significant effect for music,” the researchers conclude. “(They) strongly suggest that some baroque music, and the music of Mozart, can have conclusive beneficial effects on depressed patients.”

The researchers  point to several possible reasons for the participants’ improved mental states, including the fact music “can activate several processes which facilitate brain development and/or plasticity.” They note that depression is often associated with low levels of dopamine in the brain, and/or a low number of dopamine receptors. Previous research has found listening to music can increase dopamine levels.

Given the overhyping of the Mozart Effect, it’s important to note these results do not mean (a) that talk therapy is unimportant, or (b) that people should throw out their Prozac and put on some Prokofiev. But as Mayoral-Chavez puts it, they do suggest people suffering from low- and medium-grade depression “can use music to enhance the effects of psychological support.”

The researchers aren’t claiming that Mozart’s music is uniquely magical; they note that different types of music “may have different effects on different people.” But the music they chose — complex, upbeat, stimulating — was clearly effective. And the patients even enjoyed it … after a while.

“At the beginning of the study, many of the chosen patients did not show a good disposition to listen to the music,” they report. “But later on, they not only proved to be interested parties, but also asked for more music of this type.”

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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