How Music Helps Your Mental HealthMusic is medicine for your mind.

There are very few things that stimulate the brain in the way it does. It’s one of the most demanding cognitive and neural challenging activities. Music requires complex and accurate timing of multiple actions in your brain because of the structural, mathematical, and architectural relationships between the notes. Although it may not feel like it, your brain is doing a lot of computing to make sense of all the incoming stimuli. It’s one of the few activities that activate almost every part of your brain.

The effects of music are cognitive, psychological, social, behavioral, and emotional. Research has shown that listening to musical pieces can reduce anxiety, blood pressure, and pain as well as improve sleep quality, mood, mental alertness, and memory. Active engagement with music has lasting brain benefits, such as improving concentration, memory, self-discipline, and confidence.  The cognitive benefits of music education extend from early childhood to old age. Some studies show that it can make you smarter. It may even help ward off the effects of brain aging.

Music Evokes Mental States

Listening to, singing, playing, composing, and improvising music evokes and allows you to express mental states and feelings. New research has determined that the subjective experience of music across cultures can be mapped to at least 13 common feelings, including:

  • amusement,
  • joy,
  • eroticism,
  • beauty,
  • relaxation,
  • sadness,
  • dreaminess,
  • triumph,
  • anxiety,
  • scariness,
  • annoyance,
  • defiance, and
  • feeling pumped up.

Researchers came up with a very cool interactive map, in which musical samples are plotted along the 13 dimensions of the emotional experiences determined. In the map, each letter corresponds to a musical track. You can hover over a letter to play it. Check out the map here.

How Music Helps Your Mental Health
Graphic by Alan Cohen.

Potential applications for these research findings range from informing psychological and psychiatric therapies designed to evoke certain feelings to helping music streaming services like Spotify adjust their algorithms to satisfy customers’ audio preferences or set the mood.

Music’s Mental Health Benefits

Reduces Stress

Research shows that listening to certain melodies can lower the stress hormone, cortisol. In one study reviewed, patients about to undergo surgery who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol levels than people who had taken drugs.

Listening to music triggers the brain’s nucleus accumbens, responsible for releasing the feel-good neurochemical dopamine, which is an integral part of the pleasure-reward and motivational systems and plays a critical role in learning. Higher dopamine levels improve concentration, boost mood, and enhance memory. Dopamine is the chemical responsible for the yummy feelings you get from eating chocolate, having an orgasm, or a runner’s high.

Decreases Depression

Science shows that music can help alleviate depression and help a person feel more hopeful and in control of their life. There is even evidence that listening to music can aid in rewiring trauma in the brain. Creating harmonies with others or enjoying live music, like at a concert, gets the brain hormone oxytocin flowing increasing feelings of connectedness, trust, and social bonding.

A study appearing in the World Journal of Psychiatry found that musical therapy successfully reduced depression and anxiety in patients suffering from neurological conditions such as dementia, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. Researchers also noted that the therapy had no negative side effects and was a safe, low-risk treatment tool. Other research showed that musical therapy significantly improved depressive symptoms.

How Music Helps Your Mental Health

Boosts Mood

One study found that people who listened to upbeat tunes could improve their mood and boost happiness levels in just two weeks. In the experiment, one group was instructed to try to improve their mood with music. The other participants were told to listen to music but were not guided to try to intentionally elevate their mood. When participants were later asked to describe their happiness levels, those who had purposefully tried to improve their moods reported feeling happier after just two weeks.

Not surprisingly, another study found that different types of music had different effects on mood. Researchers determined that classical and meditation scores offered the greatest mood-boosting benefits. Heavy metal and techno were found to be ineffective and in some cases, detrimental. Surprisingly though, even sad music can bring most listeners pleasure and comfort, according to one study.

While listening to music can bring multiple mental and physical health benefits, creating it can be therapy, too. Singing in a choir has many mood-boosting and mental health benefits. Of course, playing a musical instrument has advantages for both your mental wellbeing and physical brain health.

Increases Motivation and Enhances Performance

There’s a good reason why exercise classes blast the beats or runners have tunes playing in their earbuds. Research shows that listening to fast-paced music motivates people to work out harder.

In one experiment, 12 healthy male students pedaled stationary bikes. The participants rode for 25 minutes in three sessions and listened to six songs. Unbeknownst to the bikers, the researchers were altering the tempos and measuring performances. For example, the songs were played at a normal speed, increased by ten percent, or slowed by ten percent.

The researchers discovered that speeding up the tracks resulted in increased performance in terms of distance covered, the speed of pedaling, and power exerted. Interestingly, listening to faster-paced songs not only caused exercisers to work harder during their workouts; they also reported enjoying the music more. Conversely, slowing down the tempo led to decreases in all of the variables.

Strengthens Social Bonds

In a 2013 review of the research on music, Stefan Koelsch, a music psychologist at the Freie University Berlin, determined the mechanisms through which music allows us to connect with one another. It impacts brain circuits involved in empathy, trust, and cooperation. This might explain how it has survived in every culture of the world. Music is one of the few activities where people around the globe respond in a common way. It connects all kinds of people across a myriad of cultures, traditions, and practices all over the world.

The article, Four Ways Music Strengthens Social Bonds, explains that music helps people feel connected in four ways:

  1. It increases contact, coordination, and cooperation with others.
  2. Music causes your brain to release oxytocin.
  3. It strengthens our “theory of mind” and empathy.
  4. Music increases cultural cohesion.

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