The Science Of How Music Can Improve Mental Health
A couple of days ago, I was waiting to do an audition when one of my grandparents’ favorite pieces of music came on: “Moonlight Serenade” by Glenn Miller. I burst into a smile. It took me back to when I was sitting with my Grumps and Grandma in their living room watching a film about the classic swing artist, hearing all of his beautiful songs, tapping our feet, and humming along with big grins on our faces. In that moment, I’d felt so lucky to have the most loving and supportive grandparents in the world. Today when I hear any of Miller’s songs, it always brings me back to that day with them, and I remember just how blessed and full of love my life really is.
Music clearly has a powerful impact on us, both because of its ability to create memories that will later fuel warm nostalgia and because of the way it can elicit strong emotional responses in us. And we music lovers aren’t just being sappy — science has found time and time again that music can improve mental health, making listening, writing, or playing music a true act of self-care. That’s why I founded Stronger With Music, a music media series and female artist collective: to empower women and, most importantly, to promote mental health and wellness.
Our latest video, “To Be Human, explores the complicated nature of the human mind through a cover of Sia’s hit song from the Wonder Woman soundtrack. This song grounds us in the reality of our humanity — both our fragility and our strength.
When it comes to caring for our minds, research shows music has a positive psychological and neurological effect on us. Here are just a few ways music has been scientifically proven to be a powerful natural tool for healing:
1. Music Triggers The “Happy” Chemicals In Your Brain
The reaction music can have on us begins in our neurological pathways. Listening to music naturally triggers the neurochemicals in our brain, most notably boosting our dopamine and endorphin levels. Dopamine is a hormone that deals with emotional responses and motivation. Music seems to engage the brain’s reward centers and trigger a flood of this good-mood-inducing dopamine, similar to what happens when you eat really good food or have really good sex.
Research also shows that playing music can trigger a flood of endorphins, which are those feel-good hormones released after a good workout — think of that “runner’s high.” Making music can actually produce this same euphoric thrill. (I can certainly vouch for that!)
2. Music Can Help With Depression
Many of us have likely turned to music while dealing with a particularly painful or turbulent event in our lives, and research suggests it’s a pretty good strategy. A 2011 study found that patients being treated for depression showed “greater improvement” when they received music therapy in addition to standard care (as opposed to patients who received standard care alone). Many other studies have shown music to be able to decrease anxiety symptoms, stress, aggression, and feelings of isolation, in addition to boosting things like mood, sleep quality, and general well-being.
3. Music Can Reduce Pain
Yes, some research has even found that music intervention can ease the feeling of physical and emotional pain. It’s not just in your head.
4. Music Enhances Your Memory
As my Glenn Miller anecdote shows, songs can easily be imprinted in our memories and remembered for a lifetime. Research has found music can actually improve our memory, verbal intelligence, and ability to process information, meaning music can improve your mental health and your brain health. From personal experience, I can definitely attest that it’s a powerful tool for focusing your attention: As an actor, I have to learn a lot of lines all the time, and what I find most helpful is choosing a piece of music that reminds me of the character that I’m playing. It gives me a great sense of focus to learn the lines while also embodying the role.
But perhaps the most amazing power music can have is on people living with dementia. For example, my wonderful and caring Papa is 92 years old and has dementia, but each time my mum and I sit with him and start singing the songs that he loved in the past, he starts smiling and singing along. It is so important for elderly people experiencing memory loss to be stimulated, and we found that singing his favorite old pieces — like “Kingston Town” by Harry Belafonte and any Scottish song — takes him back to that time.
It’s In Our Human Nature
It’s no surprise why so many people feel so passionately about the music they love. Clearly, we have a innate physical connection to music, and our brains and biology light up when listening to it. We know on a deep level when something is nourishing us, even if we don’t always know all the scientific reasons why.
For me, music helps me access, acknowledge, and express my emotions in a raw and meaningful way. I chose the song “To Be Human” for our project’s latest episode because it helped me tap into an important truth that’s been crucial to me on my own mental health journey: that we are all only human, capable of mistakes, and capable of giving our hearts away. At the same time, it’s a song about love and not giving up. It could be about loving a friend, loving a romantic partner, loving an elderly relative, or simply loving a dream and choosing not to give up on it, even when obstacles come in your way. It’s an empowering reminder that you are good enough just as you are — and that even amidst adversity, you have the ability to reclaim your power. Sometimes you just need the right song to remind you.
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