The Connection Between Music and Mental Health

Music—whether listening, learning or producing—is a universal language that everyone speaks. Research is continually being done to better understand the benefits of music and how it can improve our quality of life and our mental health. Whether you enjoy music for entertainment, relaxation or anything in between, we’re going to dive into some of the mental health benefits you might reap, too.

Music and Stress Reduction

Every day, we are all faced with our own stressors. Whether it’s money, family or health, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and totally stuck. If you’re looking for new coping mechanisms to better address these feelings of anxiety, experts suggest that music might be a good strategy to add to your arsenal. Much like yoga or meditation, relaxing music can help calm our fears or worries, even having a significant impact on our overall human stress response and autonomous nervous system.

Music and Sleep

Have you ever noticed that when you listen to music or white noise before bed, you sleep better? You’re not alone, and there’s a scientific reason you might feel that way! Studies suggest that music enhances and improves our sleep because of its effect on our cortisol hormones. As our internal levels of the hormone decrease, our bodies then reduce signals to the brain of stress, anxiety or alertness. Some relaxing tunes before bed is one of the best ways to signal to your body that it’s time to relax, thus potentially improving the quality of your sleep.

Music and Cognitive Therapy

For those with Alzheimer’s or dementia, it can often feel frustrating to try and recall important details or memories from the past. Over time, senior healthcare professionals and caregivers have found that music may not always be affected in terms of memory recall, and lyrics or melodies have the power to bring back a sense of familiarity or comfort for those they work with.

Joanne Loewy, director of the Armstrong center and co-editor of the journal Music and Medicine, shares that, “there’s just something about music — particularly live music — that excites and activates the body. Music very much has a way of enhancing quality of life and can, in addition, promote recovery.” Music can play a critical role in cognitive therapy efforts, or even become a unique way that family members and loved ones can connect with those who may have limited memory.

Music and Motivation

Going to the gym can be hard. Whether you’re new to the weights or you’re tired from a long day at work, getting the motivation to get back on the grind can be more exhausting than the workout itself. The good news is, music is often a key player in helping you stay motivated—and it doesn’t just apply to the gym! Have a paper you’re struggling to finish? Consider throwing on some ambient tracks for focus. Need something to help you power through organizing your home? We’d recommend a playlist full of upbeat old favorites and classics.

Christopher Bergland of The Athlete’s Way, shared his experience with music, noting that, “as an athlete, I developed an ideal mindset for peak performance and used an arsenal of time-tested songs to fortify this alter ego and…state of mind. During my training and races, it became obvious that even in really horrible weather conditions, or when I was physically suffering, that I could use music (and my imagination) to create a parallel universe… You can use music as a tool when you work out or in your daily life the same way.”

Music and Mood

Especially in the wake of the 2020 global health crisis, many people have been struggling with varying levels of anxiety, depression and general mood declines. While it’s still important to seek professional and psychological help in serious situations, we can also look for ways to boost our mood throughout the day. Music has the power to remind us of our favorite memories or lighten the mood when we’re getting down. Adding in positive playlists to your daily routines can become a factor in helping improve your disposition overall.

As with some of our other examples, music as a mood booster isn’t just anecdotal. Science is beginning to lead us to the same conclusion! Shared Valorie Salimpoor, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Montreal, “it is amazing that we can release dopamine in anticipation of something abstract, complex and not concrete.” She continues, “this basically explains why music has been around for so long. The intense pleasure we get from it is actually biologically reinforcing in the brain, and now here’s proof for it.”

Music Does the Body (and Brain) Good

No matter how you use your curated playlists and favorite albums, the positive impact of music far outweighs the effort it takes to press play. As you go about your week, think about how what you’re hearing is impacting how you feel, act and what you think. If you’re seeking change in your life, consider updating your song library as a part of your experience—it may have more of an impact than you think.