Does Music Have An Effect on Mental Health?

Does Music Have An Effect on Mental Health?

In this article, read on to learn:

    • The mechanisms through which music listening can confer benefits to mental health, and the influence of context at dicatating outcomes
    • The various benefits to using music in a therapeutic context
    • The capacity of music to positively impact well-being and quality of life
    • The ability of music to reduce levels of the stress biomarker and hormone cortisol, and how this effect likely underpins benefits to mental health
    • The effect of music on sleep quality, eating habits and creative thinking
    • The role music can play as an enhancer of exercise and work performance
    • The potential music holds as an adjunct to pain management
    • How Wavepaths can be used in healing spaces to support mental health and well-being

Music and mental health from past to present

Music is an intrinsic part of human experience. It is a universal means of expression and communication used by humankind in cultures the world over, being present in the everyday lives of people of all ages. It can be many different things at any given moment.

Music has been used in healing rituals since Palaeolithic times, and has been used in a healing context for centuries. The Ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagarus prescribed music to treat a range of people’s psychological and physical maladies. 

Music fosters connection, meaning and coherence, and these are deeply entwined with our psychological well-being. It is a uniquely dynamic and flexible sensorial experience that can be many different things at any given moment. It can shift our emotional state and promote both arousal and physical activity, or be experienced as a soothing salve, promoting relaxation and stress relief. One study reported that the most important dimensions underlying why people listen to music were for its capacity to regulate arousal and mood, achieve self-awareness and as an expression of social relatedness.

The integration of music and technology that Wavepaths specialises in has been dubbed as ‘music medicine’, and can help support both patient experience and clinical outcomes. Recorded music has a number of advantages. It can be incorporated into settings such as hospitals where live music may not be practical, it is affordable and easily applied, and easily adapted by patients and staff to support the immediate needs of individuals.

Music and the brain

Listening to music has been linked to release of the reward neurotransmitter dopamine. This highlights the pleasure that listening to music can elicit, in addition to the various benefits to well-being it can foster – it feels good, while also being good for us. Listening to music can also promote the release of the hormone oxytocin, which has a calming effect and plays a role in social bonding.

Research has shown that the brain regions recruited during music listening overlap at least partially with brain regions altered by the administration of psychedelics, particularly parts of the brain that govern the processing of emotions and memories. 

Music can benefit health and well-being through a number of psychosocial mechanisms including physiological arousal and relaxation, mood/emotion, and through cognitive pathways (such as through memory, engagement and optimism). Music can promote a sense of nostalgia which can have a range of positive effects including acting as an emotional buffer, enhancing optimism, inspiration and self-esteem, elevating life meaning and fostering social connectedness, which can have further downstream benefits. It can also help promote emotional expression and a sense of identity, and evoke present mindedness states and eudaimonic well-being, the latter being tied to living a meaningful life. 

These benefits can occur in a diverse range of contexts across the lifespan, with music having the potential to be therapeutic, uplifting and enriching.

Music, mental health, set and setting

The context in which music is experienced influences the beneficial outcomes associated with it. 

Music may be experienced passively, which has been referred to as receptive music listening, and also through intentional listening. 

One study reported higher ratings of subjective well-being among people engaging with music by dancing or attending musical events compared to people not engaging with music in these contexts. 

Engaging with music with others appears to be an important aspect of these benefits, highlighting an interpersonal capacity of music. Shared music experience can open up new ways of relating to others and promote social bonding and connection. It draws our attention away from noticing differences between ourselves and others, and the belief that these differences are important or relevant. 

Different musical styles can also be applied in different contexts when seeking particular outcomes. Music with higher tempo can promote arousal and stimulation, while slower tempo music can promote calming relaxation.

Music, well-being and quality of life

Music can boost mood, and may help reduce depressive symptoms and reduce self-reported levels of anxiety

A meta-analysis of 26 studies of musical interventions found clear evidence of them being associated with clinically significant changes in mental health-related quality of life (HRQoL). HRQoL is a multidimensional concept that encompasses domains related to physical, mental, emotional, and social functioning, focussing on the impact health status has on quality of life. 

Importantly, substantial individual variation in responses to music interventions were noted across studies. Every individual has their own unique needs and preferences, and this is why Wavepaths has worked so hard to create unique, personalised, adaptive music experiences that promote mental health and well-being.

While music is known to play a key role in psychedelic sessions, having been referred to as “the hidden therapist”, helping elicit mystical or peak experiences, it can also be sufficiently impactful and moving to evoke these experiences outside of a psychedelic context on occasion. These peak experiences can be highly valued, having enduring effects that persist beyond the acute experience, and whether occurring spontaneously or through other means, these are linked to enduring enhancements in well-being, greater self acceptance and spirituality, a deepened appreciation for life and a sense of life meaning and purpose.

Music and stress reduction

Chronic stress is a major affiliation impacting many people in our frenetic, over-stimulated modern lives, and can impact physical and mental health in a number of ways, weakening the immune system and causing anxiety, depression and insomnia. 

Music can reduce stress, with a range of studies reporting that listening to music can result in reductions in levels of the stress hormone and biomarker cortisol. Music may help to reduce stress through a number of different mechanisms beyond lowering cortisol, positively impacting mood and promoting physical and mental relaxation. Other studies have reported that other stress biomarkers including blood glucose levels are reduced through music listening. The findings of these studies suggest that an important aspect of music’s beneficial effect on health is through its ability to alter stress response, and this stress buffering power of music was noted irrespective of musical genre, self-selecting of the music, and duration of listening.

Listening to music to improve sleep quality

Some studies report that listening to relaxing music before sleep can help reduce sleep problems and improve sleep quality in both students and older adults, a quality that was not linked to listening to an audiobook prior to sleep.

Sleep quality is a hugely important determinant of overall health, impacting immune system function and cardiovascular health, and influencing brain performance, mood and psychological well-being.

Music as an exercise accompaniment and motivator

Exercise is hugely important for mental health. It can reduce stress and symptoms of depression and anxiety, improve sleep quality, boost self-esteem and self-confidence and enhance brain performance. 

Music can also support physical activity and exercise in a number of ways. 

Prior to engaging in a physical task, music may enhance arousal, facilitate task-relevant imagery and improve task-related performance. Self-selected, motivating and stimulating music has been found to boost mood, reduce ratings of perceived exertion and improve energy efficiency and enhance work output. Listening to music has also been associated with psychological benefits during high intensity exercise, including by increasing capacity for physical endurance by buffering fatigue symptoms, although it will not reduce perceptions of exertion beyond the anaerobic threshold. Synchronous music, where the beat and tempo of the music matches or falls in sync with the physical activity more reliably produces an ergogenic effect.

Synchronous music is when the pace and tempo of the music matches that of the activity, i.e. it falls in sync.

Music for enhancing focus and work performance

Some studies suggest music listening can enhance focus and concentration, although this varies with music type (music containing lyrics tends to be distracting), as well as with the individual and context. 

One study assessing the work of software developers reported that music listening boosted mood, improved work quality and reduced time spent on a given work task compared to working in silence.

The Influence of music on eating behaviour

A number of studies have found that listening to music while eating (compared to eating in silence) can enhance the time taken to consume meals. 

Music of slower tempo enhanced eating duration to the greatest degree, although listening to any music increased eating time in comparison to silence. This suggests music can function as a contextual cue that can promote healthier eating habits, with slower eating associated with better digestion and hydration, greater satisfaction with meals and easier weight maintenance or loss.

Music and creativity

Creativity is considered one of the most important and valued human traits, allowing us to create new things and adapt to an ever-changing world through creative problem solving. 

While music is an expression of human creativity, listening to it may also influence some modes of creative thinking. 

One study reported that listening to ‘happy music’ (i.e., classical music high on arousal and positive mood) was found to facilitate divergent thinking (which is associated with the process of generating multiple potential solutions to a problem), an important aspect of creative thinking.

Tied to creativity is flow, or the full immersion and involvement in an activity, with a recent study suggesting listening to music may make flow states more accessible.

Pain management and the role of music

Music may also have utility in assisting with pain management. 

One meta-analysis assessing 17 randomised controlled trials involving patients receiving medical treatment and recovering from surgery, intensive care patients and pregnant patients found music to hold important benefits as an adjuvant approach to pain control among hospitalised adults, with music being safe, inexpensive and something easily incorporated into routine patient care. 

Music can enhance medical therapies and be used as a supplement to pain management therapies, potentially enhancing their effectiveness. Self-selected musical pieces tend to be more effective than musical pieces chosen by others. Music can also help promote relaxation and act as a distractor.

Benefits to neurological disorders

Music may provide a range of cognitive, psychosocial, behavioural and motor benefits to people suffering from neurological disorders such as stroke, dementia, Parkinson’s disease and those with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). 

The primary mechanism through which music listening appears to bring relief is through improving mood and assisting with emotional regulation, while it also promotes relaxation and reduces feelings of agitation and distress. 

In addition, music can exert effects through cognition (e.g. memory and nostalgia) and through physical activation, increasing bodily and sensory awareness, and promoting social connection and a sense of identity.

In conclusion

Music is a rich resource for promoting health and well-being among people of diverse ages and backgrounds – it is affordable, safe, accessible, easily administered to suit individual needs or preferences, and it can be used in a variety of ways in a range of different contexts. 

Wavepaths is committed to optimising the beneficial application of music as a therapeutic aid and a well-being booster. Wavepaths music is now available to hospitals, therapists, yoga studios, spas, fitness centres and other spaces that are focused on providing a healing environment.



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