What goes through your mind when you are choosing a piece of music? It seems like we just choose what we like most. We might not consciously make the connection, but various highly sophisticated and nuanced psychological assessments occur when deciding what to listen to. For instance: Who else is listening? Will this music help me achieve my current goal? How am I feeling right now? How do I want to feel in 10 minutes?
Although we make most of these complex assessments without conscious effort, we recognize that listening to music has a clear, profound impact on how we feel. It seems clear that music plays a crucial part in mood maintenance and indeed, over the last ten years, the role music plays in supporting our wellbeing has drawn an increasingly significant amount of academic, media, and public attention.
Specific Biologic Benefits Of Music
Music may be uniquely suited to regulate and manage emotions in everyday life. Recent research has shown the positive effects music has on our wellbeing. It can distract and engage listeners in a variety of ways. Music can help biologically in many ways:
- Decreases cortisol levels (“stress hormones”)
- Increases dopamine and serotonin levels (“happy hormones”)
- Lowers blood pressure
- Lowers heart rate
Music can help our daily health by improving functional capacity:
- Strengthens brain development
- Enhances coping survival mechanisms
- Improves athletic performance
In recent years, there has been increasing interest in the way babies’ brains develop, both in utero and postpartum. We are born with billions of neurons which, during the first year of life, are busy forming connections with other neurons and strengthen over time. Children who grow up listening to music develop more robust music-related pathways. Some of these musical pathways affect the way we think; specifically, research has shown that listening to classical music improves spatial reasoning, at least on a short-term basis. Learning to play an instrument may hold an even more prolonged effect on particular cognitive skills during crucial development years.
Motivational or synchronized music has physical and psychological effects on our athletic ability, as exercising along with a steady and robust beat tends to satisfy and inspire one to exercise more. In modern society, sleep problems have increased drastically; people may feel desperate and are more inclined to be drawn to pharmaceutical sleep aids. Given the apparent links between stress and poor sleep, there has been evidence to suggest that music may be a powerful tool in the fight against sleep loss.
Depression can be caused by low dopamine and serotonin levels, as well as reduced dopamine and serotonin receptors in the brain. These are the areas of the brain that regulate our internal reward system allowing us to experience pleasure and joy. By stimulating these areas in the brain, music has the potential to enhance our positive emotions and thereby reduce depression.
Looking further into the connection between music and depression, we see that misery loves company. People are more likely to listen to sad music when feeling depressed, whereas we choose a happier tune to go along with our good mood. More recently, however, research indicates that allowing patients access to music interventions before, during, or after surgery can also reduce anxiety and pain levels, therefore accelerating the healing process. Without even scratching the surface, we see clearly how happy music can impact our emotions, demonstrating the positive power of music.
Aging makes unique demands on our nervous system. The value of cognitive exercises such as crossword puzzles, Sudoku, and chess to stimulate the brain is well acknowledged. Over the last decade, however, it has been shown that music and its variable components also play a vital role in human cognitive processes improving fluency, working memory, and recognition memory.
The management of patients with dementia presents a significant public health problem given the lack of effective pharmacological therapies. Using music as an interactive way to communicate can help improve the quality of life for people with communication impairment, increase their nonverbal and verbal communication, and allow for a connection to be built between people.
Whether you find your connection listening to classical music, jazz, rap, classic rock, or heavy metal, it’s safe to say it is quite challenging to find someone who doesn’t feel some sort of strong connection to music. Regardless of whether you can sing in tune or play an instrument, if asked, you could list a full playlist of music that raises your spirits and evokes happy thoughts. Music is a healthy companion to both growing up and growing old, as it has various benefits on development and physical, mental, and cognitive health. The effects of music in mental health portrays a series of complex impacts which are clearly based on choices and needs of an individual. The various settings where music can be used as a therapy tool are unlimited and multidisciplinary–and so are the outcomes. The extensive research carried out has shown beneficial outcomes on cognitive, emotional, and physical development and rehabilitation of all these aspects in an individual.
- Music and health
- Music, health, and well-being: A review
- The Role of Music
- The Mozart effect
- Music in the exercise domain: a review and synthesis (Part I)
- How does music aid sleep? literature review
- Music, health, and well-being: A review
- Enjoying Sad Music: Paradox or Parallel Processes?
- Meta‐analysis evaluating music interventions for anxiety and pain in surgery
- Cognitive Benefits From a Musical Activity in Older Adults
Pracha Eamranond, MD, MPH
Dr. Pracha Eamranond has been a chief medical officer in small and large healthcare organizations focusing on patient experience and education. He currently teaches at Harvard Medical School and cares for patients with complex medical and psychosocial issues at Brigham and Women's Hospital.