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Can Music Therapy Treat Substance Use Disorder?

Researchers review previous studies on the effectiveness of music therapy and music-based interventions for the treatment of substance use disorder.

Alcohol and illicit drug abuse is a significant public health problem that needs concerted efforts to combat. Substance misuse directly affects the user’s health, socially, economically, and it also affects family and friends, the community, the environment, and the country as a whole. Patients with substance use disorder are usually treated with medications, body detoxification, and psychotherapy. However, only about 10% of those who need treatment receive professional help. Moreover, most people do not always complete treatment, and as such, there is still need for improved and affordable methods to treat substance use disorder.

Alternative methods of treatment that have been used in recent times include music therapy with the help of a music therapist or interventions that use music but do not involve trained therapists. Several studies have found evidence that these methods have positive effects on those who misuse alcohol and drugs including improvement of mood, stress level, self-esteem, level of motivation, emotional expression, and a sense of belonging. Some of these results were based on studies that varied with regards to treatment settings, frequency, duration, and outcome variables with most of them lacking in important outcomes such as drug consumption or long-term abstinence.

Based on these shortcomings, Hohmann and collaborators decided to use information from published research to determine whether music and music-based interventions are effective in treating people with substance use disorders. Their research is published in PLoS One and involved the systematic review of all studies that have been published with quantitative or qualitative data on the effects of music and music-based intervention on people with substance use disorder. The researchers included studies that were published in English and involved participants of all ages and genders. The outcomes that were measured included motivation, depression, medical symptoms, anxiety, anger, sadness, and stress.

Of the 383 articles identified from the search, 39 met the inclusion criteria with six qualitative and 34 quantitative studies. Many studies were able to show beneficial effects of music therapy and music-based intervention on mood and emotions, however, varying results were obtained for studies that looked at motivation. Possible reasons may be due to differences in study designs, type of comparisons or measurement instruments. Many studies found an association between music therapy and music-based interventions with a perceived enjoyment which relates directly to a better quality of life and improved health. Group interaction positively impacted participation in this form of treatment.

Overall, there are beneficial effects of music therapy and music-based interventions on the treatment of substance use disorder, however, results from the different studies were not consistent. Number of sessions, group dynamics, and type of music were shown to influence some of the outcomes while outcomes such as abstinence from substance use were not investigated in all of these studies but one. For meaningful policies to be designed to address the issue of substance use disorder, music therapy and music-based intervention need to be thoroughly investigated and should include both social and health outcomes.

Written by Asongna T. Folefoc


  1. Hohmann L, Bradt J, Stegemann T, Koelsch S. (2017). Effects of music therapy and music-based interventions in the treatment of substance use disorders: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 12(11): e0187363. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0187363

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