Music Therapy, Mental Health, and Epilepsy

By: Annemarie DeChellis

Music has long been a part of human history, and can be considered an integral part of the human
experience. While music has a significant role within cultural and social practices, more recently
research has shown the ways that music therapy and musical interventions promote positive
behavioral, emotional, and cognitive changes.

Mental Health Benefits

There is little dispute over the healing power of music and the profound impact it can
have on our overall well-being. Numerous studies have found that listening to music, particularly
classical music, reduces levels of anxiety, stress, and depression (Hasegawa et al., 2004; Field et
al., 1998; Leubner & Hinterberger, 2017). Listening to music not only reduces emotional tension,
but also provides a means for non-verbal expression and exploration of one’s emotions, which in
turn increases self-awareness (Leubner & Hinterberger, 2017). While listening to optimistic
music can quickly elevate mood, listening to sad, melancholic music can help people process and
understand their feelings. Moreover, increasing self-awareness and strengthening self-identity
aids recovery from mental illness and promotes the use of healthy coping mechanisms (Hense &
McFerran, 2017; Johnson, 2018). Listening to and engaging with music provides both immediate
(e.g., mood elevation and stress reduction) and long-term (e.g., strengthens self-awareness and
identity) mental health benefits, making music therapy a multifaceted treatment option for
mental illnesses.

Prevalence of Mental Disorders

As of 2015 in the United States, an estimated 6.3% of the general population suffer from
anxiety disorders, while 5.9% suffer from depressive disorders (World Health Organization,
2017). Compared to the general population, mental illness and psychiatric disorders are found at
a higher rate among both children and adults living with epilepsy. An estimated 20-50% of
people epilepsy also suffer from mental illness— anxiety and depression being the most common
(Davies et al., 2003; Navdenov et al., 2019; Tareke et al., 2020). With this being said, when
administering or seeking treatment for epilepsy, mental health concerns should be taken into
consideration as well. Music therapy, thus, presents itself as a valuable, additional treatment
option for it has many mental health benefits while, most notably, promoting healthy changes
within the brain.

What is Music Therapy?

The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) defines Music Therapy as:
“the clinical and evidence-based use of music interventions to accomplish individualized
goals within a therapeutic relationship by a credentialed professional who has completed an
approved music therapy program.” (American Music Therapy Association, 2006.)
Clinical treatment by a licensed music therapist can be in the form of listening, singing, creating,
and/or moving to music. The goal of musical intervention, as suggested by the AMTA, is to
facilitate expression and communication. The AMTA provides substantial information about the
uses and outcomes of music therapy through their website: Additionally,
the AMTA provides fact sheets about music therapy for specific populations, such as military,
Alzheimer’s disease, mental health, and pain management. Links to their fact sheet webpage and
fact sheet covering mental health and music therapy can be found at the end of this article.

Music and the Brain

One of the most remarkable aspects of music therapy is its potential to create
neurophysiological changes. This is possible through the concept of neuroplasticity, which
highlights how the neural pathways and connections in the brain are closely tied to our
environment (Reybrouck et al., 2018). By listening to music, the brain is not only activated by
releasing dopamine (i.e., the neurotransmitter linked to learning, motivation, and pleasure), but
the neural activity within the brain can synchronize to the rhythm of the music, similar to how
we can synchronize our dancing to the beat of a song (Constantin, F. A., 2018). This is
significant for individuals living with neurological disorders as it has been found that when
listening to classical music people with epilepsy reported higher levels of synchronicity in the
temporal and frontal lobes of the brain. While further research is being conducted, these results
show promise for how music can be used in addition to current epileptic therapies (Sliwa, J.,

The benefits of music therapy are inherently tied to neuroplasticity. In other words, the
emotional, behavioral, social, and cognitive changes that music therapy facilitates first begin
with changes in the brain. Music presents itself as a viable tool for reducing stress, relieving
symptoms of anxiety and depression, increasing self-awareness, while also supporting healthy
neural activity within the brain that can assist with the treatment of neurological disorders.

Additional Links:

American Music Therapy Association (AMTA):
AMTA Fact Sheets:
AMTA Fact Sheet for Music Therapy and Mental Health:


American Music Therapy Association. (2006). Music Therapy and Mental Health. https://

Constantin, F. A. (2018). Music therapy explained by the principles of neuroplasticity. Bulletin of
the Transilvania University of Brascov Series VIII: Performing Arts, 11(60), 19-24.

Davies, S., Heyman, I. & Goodman, R. (2003), A population survey of mental health problems in
children with epilepsy. Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 45(5), 292-295.

Field, T., Martinez, A., Nawrocki, T., Pickens, J., Fox N.A., & Schanberg, S. (1998). Music shifts
frontal EEG in depressed adolescents. Adolescence, 33(129), 109-116.

Hasegawa, H., Uozumi, T., & Ono, K. (2004). Psychological and physiological evaluations of
music listening for mental stress. The Hokkaido Journal of Medical Science, 79(3), 225–

Hense, C., & McFerran, K. S. (2017). Promoting young people’s musical identities to facilitate
recovery from mental illness. Journal of Youth Studies, 20, 997-1012.

Johnson, K. (2018). A survey of music therapy methods on adolescent inpatient mental health
units. Journal of Music Therapy, 55(4), 463- 488.

Leubner, D., & Hinterberger, T. (2017). Reviewing the effectiveness of music interventions in
treating depression. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1109.

Naydenov, K., Petkov, Y., Manchev, I., Chengeliyska, V., & Komsiyska, D. (2019). Comorbidity
of epilepsy and mental disorders. Trakia Journal of Sciences, 17(3), 243-246.

Reybrouck, M., Vuust, P., & Brattico, E. (2018). Music and brain plasticity: how sounds trigger
neurogenerative adaptations, IntechOpen, 85-103.

Silwa, J., (2015, August 9). Can Music Help People with Epilepsy? American Psychological

Tareke, M., Birehanu, M., Amare, D., & Abate, A. (2020). Common mental illness among
epilepsy patients in Bahir Dar city, Ethiopia: A cross-sectional study. PloS one, 15(1),

World Health Organization. (2017). Depression and other common mental disorders: global
health estimates.

Read More