Sound Mind - 5 Benefits of Music For Mental Health
Updated: Apr 1, 2023
How Music Can Support Mental Wellness
We all know the 'feel-good' power of listening to music. Whether it's motivating us on a run, entertaining us whilst sitting in traffic or engaging in music-making through performance, composition or conducting - it's a great mood booster. Science agrees, with many studies concluding that music has the power to reduce anxiety and stress.
So, as someone who lives with a mental illness and has benefitted from engaging with music, both passively and actively, I thought it would be interesting to explore some of these key benefits and how to use music effectively to boost my mental health and wellbeing. Care to join?
Let's take a look, shall we?
How Does Music Affect the Brain?
Before we go into the benefits, let's don our lab coats and take a look at some of the science surrounding music and mental health. Microscopes at the ready - we're going on a journey into the brain!
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in many bodily functions, such as movement, memory, behaviour and cognition, but today we're going to focus on its role in pleasurable reward and motivation. As well as a neurotransmitter, dopamine also acts as a hormone - the 'feel-good' hormone to be precise. As humans, we're wired to seek out behaviours and activities that release dopamine. Every time we engage in behaviour that gives us that dopamine hit, we feel good - so we do it again and again.
A study reported in Nature Neuroscience found that music has a positive impact on dopamine within our brains. It's key at this point to understand that we can get that dopamine hit from both tangible stimuli, such as food, as well as abstract stimuli, such as love. The study suggested that the pleasure humans obtain from the abstract stimulus of engaging with music can be compared with tangible stimuli. In short, we get that dopamine hit from engaging with music, so we're inclined to continue to engage with it.
There are studies that have also proven real, medical benefits for mental wellbeing through engaging with music - from reducing anxiety during surgeries that require local anaesthetic to having the potential to be an effective therapy for the treatment of apathy in the early stages of dementia.
Ok, so now we've looked at some of the science, let's get into the benefits!
1) Music as a Mood Booster: How It Affects Our Emotions
Storms of rage, waves of sadness and puddles of melancholy - life doesn't half throw it at us. I've been known to experience all three of the above on a typical Monday morning to be fair! Sometimes, we can get stuck in these feelings and it can be hard to move on - like a bad case of emotional constipation. Music can be a great emotional laxative (for want of a better phrase) when we find ourselves ruminating (such a satisfying word) in negative emotions.
Whether we're lifting our spirits through listening to upbeat bops, easing anger through the catharsis of singing our hearts out (enter Miley Cyrus' 'Flowers' - the song that has had people in healthy relationships, acting as if they're going through gut-wrenching breakups...it's me, I'm people), blasting a piece of music on our instruments or processing feelings of sadness with a good, old, weepy ballad (enter any song by Adele or Lana Del Ray) - music can help us to navigate the inevitable troughs that every day life hands to us. It can just give us the little push we need to release our emotions and move on in a more emotional-constipation-free manner. So either get that playlist blasting or grab your instrument from your case - think of it as All-Bran for your feelings - no more emotional constipation for you!
2) Brain Power: Music Enhances Cognitive Function
A study conducted by the American Psychological Association in 2011 determined that "the more years a person spent playing an instrument, the higher they tested in areas of memory, cognitive ability and neuroplasticity" (the ability for your brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, for example: through learning or experience). We're learning lots of new things today! Feel free to throw that little gobbet of information in your next conversation at the pub and bask in your own cleverness!
It's no surprise really, when you think about it. Playing a musical instrument works every part of the central nervous system, as well as both sides of your brain. Motor skills, decision making, translation of notation and foreign terms, as well as memory and multi-sensory inputs - auditory, emotional, visual etc. - playing music is a complete workout for your brain.
As musicians, we know that we're always learning. Whether it's picking up a new piece, polishing technical skills or harnessing nerves, playing an instrument engages your brain and involves the creation of new pathways (as well as the strengthening of existing ones), which keeps our minds sharp!
3) Musical Therapy: Alleviating Symptoms of Anxiety and Depression
I use that heading loosely. I'm not about toxic positivity and it's important to make the point that it's important to seek professional medical advice when dealing with a mental health problem - especially if your symptoms are severe or this is your first experience of dealing with a mental illness or crisis. No matter how good the music you're listening to or playing is, it can't be used as a substitute for expert medical advice when it is needed.
That being said, studies have shown that engaging with music can help with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Music Therapy is a treatment that many people use as a release to help with low mood, stress and anxiety. Research has shown that listening to music can decrease cortisol - the stress hormone that triggers our fight or flight response, to help us feel calmer. We've already covered how music releases dopamine when we listen or make music, which can help tackle low mood and lack of motivation.
Music can also be used as an emotional release. Just like 'Talking Therapies' can help symptoms of anxiety and depression by allowing you to empty your mind of its thoughts and work through problems, music can be an effective way to release compressed emotions. The mental and physical act of making music means you have to be present in the moment, which helps to focus your mind and distract from negative thoughts and feelings.
4) Harnessing Creativity: The Mental Reward of Music
Music is a fantastic outlet for creativity. Whether it's working on a composition, crafting that perfect performance or making a solo your own, there's so much room for your to explore and experiment. Just as running a 5K or beating your personal best at the gym can create a sense of accomplishment that releases those feel good chemicals, dopamine and serotonin, so can music-making and also when we listen to music that moves us.
Those of us who play instruments will have felt the rush when you come off stage after a really good performance. That sense of fulfilment feels really good (despite any nerves that may have preceded it) - we get that dopamine hit and so we want to do it again. Working on a performance or even a particular technique to the point of mastering it gives us a sense of purpose and can trigger that 'reward response'.
5) Community Connection: Building Musical Relationships
Music brings people together. From a playing perspective, being part of a band is great for expanding your social circle, meeting new people and building meaningful connections with like minded people. As we get older, our social connections can decrease, which increases the risk of loneliness and isolation. Joining an ensemble, such as a brass band, choir or drama group introduces you to people who have similar interests as you and can be the perfect environment to build new friendships.
If you're not a musician or not looking to engage actively in music-making - there are still loads of ways you can let music help you to expand your social circle. Attending local concerts, open mic nights and events can put you in touch with communities of people who share your interests. Alternatively, ensembles everywhere will always appreciate a helping hand when it comes to running their operations. Maybe ask if you could take on a supporting role in:
Marketing, social media promotion or ticket sales
Front of house at your local theatre or events venue
Taking on a stage role at your local amateur dramatics or theatre society
So, I hope that was an interesting voyage of discovery into the benefits of music for mental health and wellbeing! I don't know about you, but it's given me inspiration to go and get my instrument out of it's case! If you're looking for some practice inspiration or want to integrate mindfulness within your practice, why not download my FREE InstruMental Practice Journal Sheets? Not only do they help you to keep track of what you're working on and your progress, they help you to identify better practice habits, so you get more out of your practice sessions and most importantly - enjoy them! They can be used digitally on tablets or printed off and come in two snazzy styles! Happy Practicing!
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