Music therapy reduces depression in children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems, a new study has revealed.

Researchers at Bournemouth University and Queen’s University Belfast working in partnership with Every Day Harmony (the brand name for Northern Ireland Music Therapy Trust) found that young people between eight and 16 years of age who received music therapy had significantly improved self-esteem and reduced depression compared with those who received treatment without music therapy.

The study, which was funded by the Big Lottery Fund, also found that young people aged 13 and over who received music therapy had improved communicative and interactive skills, compared to those who received usual care options alone. Music therapy also improved social functioning over time in all age groups.

The largest study of its kind to date, it involved 251 children and young people over a period of 34 months. 128 individuals underwent the usual care options, while 123 were assigned to music therapy in addition to usual care. All were being treated for emotional, developmental or behavioural problems.

The research team will now look at the data to establish how cost effective music therapy is in relation to other treatments.

Professor Sam Porter, who led the study, described the findings as ‘hugely significant’ in helping to determine effective treatments for children and young people with behavioural problems and mental health needs. He urged healthcare providers and commissioners to take the report into account when making decisions about care for young people.

‘Music therapy has often been used with children and young people with particular mental health needs, but this is the first time its effectiveness has been shown by a definitive randomised controlled trail in a clinical setting,’ said Ciara Reilly, chief executive of Every Day Harmony. ‘The findings are dramatic and underscore the need for music therapy to be made available as a mainstream treatment option.

‘For a long time, we have relied on anecdotal evidence and small-scale research findings about how well music therapy works. Now we have robust clinical evidence to show its beneficial effects.’

Music therapy for children and adolescents with behavioural and emotional problems: a randomised controlled trial‘ (by Sam Porter, Tracey McConnell, Katrina McLaughlin, Fiona Lynn, Christopher Cardwell, Hannah-Jane Braiden, Jackie Boylan, Valerie Holmes, and on behalf of the Music in Mind Study Group) was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.