We all have music we enjoy listening to because it makes us feel good, but have we considered how powerful music can be for our mental health and wellbeing? Music can have profound effects on our bodies that it makes our feet tap and hum, whether in time or not, it doesn’t just stop there. Doctors have uncovered that music can boost the function of neural networks, lower blood pressure, reduce levels of stress and even provide pain relief for patients in surgery through the release of endorphins.
Humans are born with more neurons than are essential and usually around 8 years of age, our brains begin to discard neurons which are considered as redundant. This is the reason why it is easier for a child to learn a musical instrument better than an adult, as they can utilise their neurons before they are considered redundant and therefore dumped. The term ‘use it or lose it’ really is quite real. It has been discovered that professional musicians have healthier, bigger and more sensitive brains, which mean that musicians have far more flexible cognitive ability, auditory skills and working memory than non-musicians.
Benefits of Music and Our Health
Listening to music releases dopamine, but it was also discovered that levels of dopamine were 9% higher in participants that listened to their favourite music. Interestingly, different genres of music are said to have different effects on the brain, for example:
- Rap music is said to be great for emotional development, learning, creativity, communication and motor functioning.
- Jazz enhances calming chemicals that are released such as melatonin.
- Heavy Metal encourages group bonding and a sense of identity.
- Classical music releases dopamine and encourages memory and absorption of information.
- Pop Music aids us to be physically active and is a great motivator.
By learning to play a musical instrument or learning to sing can be a boost for self-esteem. Being responsible for creating satisfying music sound creates a sense of pride and ownership, and particularly playing in group with other people can also elevate confidence and social skills. Having good self-esteem and creating healthy social interactions is vital for increasing and maintaining positive mental health.
In addition, research also indicates that listening to music may aid our body physically. It has been discovered that music can affect the heart and circulation. Possible explanations of this can be due to decreased heart rate, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress hormones. Scientists reviewed blood flow and arterial function in 10 participants before and after they were exposed to different genres of music and amusing videos. Blood flow was increased by 26% when participants listened to joyful music, whilst amusing videos and laughter only increased blood flow by 19%.
Music therapy can provide comfort for individuals with depression, trauma, addiction and grief, whilst also benefiting those diagnosed with long-term mental health conditions such as schizophrenia, personality disorder and dementia. Music enables individuals with psychological disorders to regulate their own emotions and can be utilised as a calming influence for anxiety.
During music therapy sessions, the therapist may encourage the individual to analyse song lyrics that they can associate with. This then provides an opportunity for the individual to write their own song, whilst being mindful of selecting specific instruments, sounds and lyrics that can help convey their feelings and experiences. The individual can direct their emotions into rhythm and volume. Also, playing musical instruments can stimulate creative and emotional expression whilst also learning a new skill during therapy. But music therapy doesn’t have to be so hands-on. Active music listening can be used to engage the neocortex of the brain which relaxes us. We usually listen to music that matches our current mood, although this can keep us trapped in an anxious, angry and depressive state. During therapy, the therapist may begin to play music to match the individual’s current mood and then slowly introduce new music that encourages a more positive state of mind.
Music and Dementia
The auditory system of the brain begins to function fully at just 25 weeks in the womb. This means that humans are musically responsive quite early on in our lives. Our music responsiveness stays with us for most of our lives and remains active even with Dementia. For Dementia patients, music is proven to reach parts of the damaged brain that can unlock emotional memories. Music and memory have a powerful connection, for example, people can connect songs and pieces of music to their wedding, childhoods and social gatherings. It has been known for an individual with Dementia with no speech or recognition to all of the sudden burst into song when hearing a piece of music from their past. Music is an avenue for engagement and communication for individuals with Dementia.
There are still elements of our brains we still struggle to understand entirely and the full effect of music on the brain is still unclear. Although in conclusion, it’s clear that there is a strong link between mental health and music, and that it benefits us physically and mentally.