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MUSIC FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND GENERAL WELL-BEING: 16 BENEFITS EXPLAINED

Mya Care Blogger 14 Mar 2023
MUSIC FOR MENTAL HEALTH AND GENERAL WELL-BEING: 16 BENEFITS EXPLAINED

Music is arguably as old as humanity and may even predate language. It is believed to be a major defining feature of every culture around the globe and is known to connect us socially, creatively and spiritually. Research highlights how the effects of music are pertinent to health, even possibly forming an underestimated yet vital part of overall physical and mental well-being.

The below article explores the health benefits of music on the brain and body, as well as briefly discuss factors that can enhance or detract from these benefits.

The Impact of Music on the Brain

Music Coordinates Multiple Brain Areas. The way in which music is processed by the brain is thought to be as complex as language comprehension, understanding and reasoning, yet without inherent meaning or language-derived semantics. Some speculate that language may have been derived from music or that both language and music may have a common root, an ancestral language devoid of words. Processing music involves the connection and integration of multiple brain regions, which overlaps with many processes vital to applied thinking, emotional processing, motivation, achievement, communication and socialization.[1]

Promotes Neuroplasticity and Possibly Neurogenesis. As seen with the practice of any skill set, listening to music increases the development of neuronal connections in the multiple brain areas it is known to stimulate. This is associated with reductions in cortisol and increased BDNF[2] (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which is further linked with enhanced neuroplasticity (neuronal flexibility) and neurogenesis (neuronal repair)[3]. Across studies, musicians display a much higher degree of flexibility when switching between different neuronal circuits, especially with regard to the circuitry it promotes. As these circuits form part of many other networks pertaining to cognitive, emotional and physical processes, music is thought to enhance overall cognition. This is reflective of results revealing that listening to music can raise basic intelligence and IQ, increase brain size and improve thinking and language ability.[4] [5]

Music Exerts a Lifelong Impact on the Brain. Brain-related benefits of listening to music may be additive, as evidenced by long-term studies that show a positive association between the age one begins to learn music, overall how long one has been learning music for and how intensively one practice.[6] Children that practice music, even if only for a brief period, seem to carry the cognitive benefits forward into their adult lives.[7]

16 Health Benefits of Music

Music can improve overall health and well-being in many ways, including:

  1. Stress Reduction and Resilience. Most of the health benefits of music are largely related to its ability to lower stress in the body. Several studies have shown that listening to music substantially lowers stress in the body, especially if the music is calming or pleasant. Current evidence also supports the notion that either listening to or practising music can help to improve upon symptoms of PTSD through stress reduction,[8] as well as through providing an optimal coping mechanism that promotes emotional regulation and resilience.
  2. Pregnancy. Music was proven to have calming effects on pregnant women, highlighted by reductions in cortisol across studies[9]. This is linked with a reduced risk for premature deliveries and potential complications due to fewer contractions during labour[10]. Some research shows that listening to music and singing can also elevate oxytocin and enhance the bonding between mother and child. Mothers who engage in musical activities during pregnancy are shown to have a lower risk for pregnancy-related pain[11] and postpartum depression.[12]Mothers who are more into music also exhibit an improved quality of sleep and less dependency on medications during and after pregnancy.[13]
  3. Lullabies and Fetal Development. In addition to reducing stress which can have a negative impact on fetal development, prenatal and postnatal music exposure has been shown to marginally improve developmental parameters in infants, including slightly swifter response time, better physical coordination and a more stable mood[14]. The sound of the mother’s voice when she sings was shown to pose a stronger effect on the developing fetus and infant[15], which supports the age-old tradition of singing lullabies. Perhaps the largest benefit of listening to music for developing newborns is the impact it has on the brain, which increases the likelihood of musical pursuit later on in life.
  4. Communication Skills and Socialization. Music is a form of expression that allows for the  communication of multiple emotions and intentions with or without language. Despite evolving alongside language and exuding a similar complexity, music and singing pose different effects on the brain, as evidenced by the occurrence of distinctly different neuronal networks that fire and wire in response to either activity.[16] [17] Music may encourage better expression and communication through speech, as well as a better grasp of language phonetics.[18] [19] Neurologically, this can be explained through enhanced brain connectivity. Musicians appear to display larger white matter volume in the corpus callosum, which is a central brain hub that connects the right and left hemispheres of the brain.
  5. Immune Function. Music may have long-lasting effects on the immune system due to its ability to regulate emotion, calm down the nervous system and lower cortisol. In a 10 week intervention that observed group drumming sessions, the participants were shown to have reduced markers of inflammation and a gradual immune system shift from an inflammatory to an anti-inflammatory profile.[20] Studies suggest that music may be able to help lower cardiovascular inflammation and protect against excessive blood clotting, as seen in long-COVID-19 patients.[21] Aside from inflammation, salivary immunoglobulin-A (s-IgA) has been shown to increase in individuals that listen to pleasant music, irrespective of genre.[22] S-IgA is part of the body’s frontline defense network against foreign material, able to neutralize many microbes before they make it further into the system. The immune-mediated effects of music were stronger for those who actively practised music than for those who passively listened.
  6. Mood. Practising and listening to music have been linked with brain elevations in neurochemicals that are indicative of a good mood, such as dopamine, endorphins and endocannabinoids.[23] According to multiple studies, one of the main benefits of listening to pleasant music is mood improvement. Musical therapy was shown to enhance the treatment of those with depression and help to reduce symptoms.[24] [25] Aside from promoting a good mood, practising music was shown to increase activation in the brain associated with emotional processing, as well as memories associated with emotion.
  7. Learning and Memory. The music maintains many elements crucial to memory formation, including repetition and emotion. Some studies show that information can be better remembered when sung as opposed to spoken. While listening to music mostly encourages memory of the music itself, it has been shown to stimulate the hippocampus and other brain regions related to learning, attention and the formation of memory in general.[26] This indicates that engaging either actively or passively in music can improve memory formation and recall merely through brain stimulation. Practising music enhances these effects, as evidenced by the larger volume seen in these areas of the brains of musicians compared to non-musicians that appreciate music.[27]
  8. Attention and Motivation. Practising music and deeply listening to it tends to improve one’s attention span and selective focus, especially on auditory stimuli. In this regard, the listening and comprehension ability of musicians may be greater than that of  non-musicians, particularly where pitch, intonation and language are concerned. MRI studies indicate that brain regions involved in selective attention become more active in musicians when listening to a piece of music. Following on from these findings, practising music is known to be a highly rewarding activity in which the musician is constantly making progress towards achievement. Research additionally reveals that music increases dopamine as well as plasticity within the reward pathway, which serves to improve motivation, goal-oriented behaviour and one’s ability to focus selectively on tasks with a set outcome.
  9. Cognition and Age-Related Cognitive Decline. The way in which musical training contributes positively towards the growth of pertinent cognition-related brain areas may be able to protect against age-related cognitive decline[28] and associated diseases, such as dementia. One trial revealed that 3-6 months of listening to music was comparable to meditation in terms of improving cognition and memory.[29] Similar effects have been seen in small-scale trials on patients with dementia, in which both mood and cognition were shown to improve.
  10. Enhanced Creative Cognition and Reappraisal. Adding to the understanding that engaging in musical activity enhances overall IQ, listening to positive music (especially classical music) has been shown to facilitate divergent, creative thinking.[30] Improved creative thinking is a product of overall brain plasticity, making way for new and inspiring thoughts to occur. This naturally contributes towards an improved problem-solving ability as well as the ability to recontextualize information, giving rise to different responses, outcomes and opportunities. Cognitive reappraisal as a result of creative thinking serves to promote healthy coping mechanisms during stressful situations, which can lend itself to enhanced resilience and better emotional regulation.
  11. Movement and Coordination. The practice involved in playing an instrument stimulates the somatosensory cortex and promotes enhanced fine motor coordination, as well as better integration of visual and spatial processing in the brains of musicians. White matter is more developed between the motor cortex of the brain and the spinal cord, indicating that musicians may have better overall physical coordination and posture. This could be explained by the fact that musicians have a significantly lower incidence of musculoskeletal problems than the general population. In addition, the connections between the motor and auditory areas of the brain are more developed in musicians, which suggests that practising music may promote sharper reflexes, specifically in response to auditory stimuli.
  12. May Enhance Physical Exercise. Music can help to encourage people to exercise by making it more enjoyable, promoting better attention and enhancing the overall experience of physical activity. Music of a fast tempo was shown to have a mild effect on increasing running speed and hand grip strength, while the music of a slow tempo was shown to reduce hand grip strength and be helpful in slowing down the heart rate during exercise recovery.  Cardiorespiratory efficiency was shown to be improved in individuals who listened to their favourite music while cycling, revealing that music can relax the mind and lower the heart rate, potentially leading to more efficient workouts. Additionally, focus on music during physical activity has been shown to distract the mind as well as entrain breathing with a rhythm, which may lower pain perception and enhance physical endurance.[31]
  13. Recovery and Rehabilitation. The health effects of music extend to those undergoing recovery from surgery and rehabilitation. Music is associated with shorter hospital stays, lower prescription painkiller use[32], pain and stress reductions post-operation[33] as well as quicker physical recovery. Listening to music in the early phase, just after a stroke, may help to protect the patient from suffering permanent brain damage. Short-term interventions have shown that music can enhance visual awareness in such patients, as well as enhance the structure and function of the brain’s grey matter.[34] Music has additionally been shown to promote swifter recovery and better cognition in those with mild traumatic brain injuries. [35]
  14. May Lower Metabolic Disease Risk. In a study examining the health of nearly 10000 musicians, it was revealed that the occurrence of cardiovascular and other metabolic diseases was exceedingly rare.[36] Practising music has been shown in other studies to lower the risk for metabolic disease by lowering stress, heart rate and blood pressure[37], as well as increasing nitric oxide and optimizing circulation. Patients with coronary heart disease who practised music every day were shown to have less severe symptoms, which correlated with specific gene switches that served to reduce stress in the long run.[38]
  15. Could Protect Against Neurodegenerative Disorders. The music is able to strengthen the brain areas that overlap with several prime inflammatory hotspots across various neurodegenerative diseases, including Parkinson’s Disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s Disease. Musical training has been used successfully in scientific trials in order to improve upon symptoms of all these conditions. Those with Parkinson’s Disease were shown to have a faster gait speed, better posture, and enhanced physical coordination in response to musical activity. Additionally, those with Alzheimer’s Disease exhibited reduced stress levels, better mood and an improved ability to think, speak and recall memories[39]. One trial revealed that music-based therapy (including dance, making music or listening to it) proved superior for patients with multiple sclerosis in that it improved physical coordination, balance, endurance, mood and reduced pain.[40]

Can Anyone Master Music?

One of the main obstacles individuals face with regard to learning music would be musical aptitude and perceived talent. As discussed below, this is often not as much of a barrier as one might like to think!

Music Develops with the Individual. Research is unclear if people are on an equal footing with regard to musical ability before they begin to learn. Some studies indicate that exposure to music in the womb, during infancy and childhood, can increase the musical aptitude of the child and increase the chances that they will pursue music. Additionally, studies show that infants with greater white matter volume in the corpus callosum (that connects both brain hemispheres) may have a greater aptitude for music.[41] The brain of the developing fetus has been shown to respond to musical stimuli played to the mother, indicating that prenatal musical exposure can directly promote white matter development. A large-scale study on musicians and identical twins suggests that unknown genetic factors can predispose some children to practising more often and to having a higher musical aptitude[42]. However, other trials concluded that there were no differences between children with regard to musical aptitude prior to taking up music lessons.

Exposure Improves Musical Aptitude. The above findings suggest a musical advantage in some children over others, supporting the notion that musical exposure and engagement are enough to begin music-related brain development and musical aptitude. Children with no noticeable musical aptitude are known to quickly develop one after a few music lessons and some practice. The same has been observed in adults[43]. Hence it is likely that anyone can learn music at any age, provided they have been exposed to music and are interested to learn. Despite this, results are contradictory with regard to musical aptitude between musicians who have been learning and practising for similar lengths of time. More studies are needed to confirm what sets musically talented musicians apart from other musicians.[1] 

Hearing Deficits Present Both Musical Challenges and Opportunity. Some research indicates that damage to the ear may prevent one from learning music. On the other hand, musical training in hearing-compromised individuals is known to greatly enhance their ability to hear, communicate as well as learn music. This indicates that despite being potentially challenging at first, persevering music may be a potent wellness tool for those with hearing deficits.

Gender-Based Differences in Music. There is little research into the effects of music on each gender. Preliminary evidence suggests that females appear to have equal activation of brain hemispheres in response to music than males, who display right hemisphere dominance in response.[44] This is likely a result of the enhanced connectivity between both brain hemispheres in females overall compared to their male counterparts[45]. Other studies have highlighted these findings by showing that females can identify musical motifs relatively quicker than males[46], which may be due to having more developed neural structures in a relevant brain area found in both hemispheres[47]. While music may affect sex hormones and their receptors, current data suggests these effects are negligible in both men and women.[48]

Differences Between Listening to Music and Practising Music

Both listening to music and practising music are known to be beneficial, depending on the type of music and type of engagement. Both musical activities can lower stress, improve mood and enhance mental and emotional well-being.

Practising Music Proves More Potent. Despite these shared benefits, making music has consistently been shown to promote greater benefits for the individual, including enhancing one’s ability to listen to and passively benefit from music. Listening to music is not able to develop brain structures in the same way that practising music can. Therefore practising music poses a far greater effect on cognition and protects against brain degeneration and age-related cognitive decline.

Does the Type of Music Matter?

The type of music one learns and listens to may have an impact on the potential health benefits of musical activity. The following factors may affect the results:

  • Musical Excitation and Tempo. The pace of music generally affects the heart rate and breathing of the listener. This means that fast music can have a stimulating and sometimes stressful effect and slow music can have a calming or even sedative effect[49]. Depending on the listener, music with either a fast or slow tempo can have positive or negative effects. Adjusting the tempo of music one listens to or produces can serve to change one’s energy levels and emotional state of being or excitation.
  • Conveyed Messages and Identification. Music has the ability to convey intention and emotion through both instrumental and linguistic means. The type of music and the meaning it conveys to the listener may have either a positive or negative effect on the way they think and feel. Messages and emotional themes conveyed through music can also contribute to reinforcing identity and to participating in a group identity. This is usually a positive feature of music, as it allows the listener to experience and reflect (even if unconsciously) upon their own emotions, thoughts and sense of self.[50] Research has suggested that negative themes expressed through music may pose a negative effect on the listener. However, these effects are typically most pronounced for those who do not already embody these themes, for which such music may predispose them to think, feel and act in non-constructive ways. For a listener who already embodies these themes, music that expresses them is known to promote a good mood[51], possibly reduce suicide risk[52] and reinforce their identity[53] [54]. Perhaps one issue associated with extreme music genres would be violent ideation, which can desensitize the listener to violence more on average[55] and may promote violent behaviour in predisposed individuals. On the other hand, positive messages conveyed through music can help to reinforce a more positive sense of self and may enhance the positive effect.
  • Preference. Above tempo and genre, many studies have highlighted how music pleasing to the listener or performer can pose greater short-term benefits than non-preferential music. Following on from the above points, the type of music that one tends to prefer at the moment is often related to one’s feelings, identification and energy levels, which would naturally pertain to the tempo and genre.
  • Classical Music and the “Mozart Effect.” Some small trials have noted that classical music, especially Mozart’s music, was shown to promote higher academic performance in comparison to other types of music. This has been dubbed the “Mozart Effect.” Findings suggest that actively listening to Mozart’s music may improve IQ, especially pertaining to spatial and temporal reasoning. This was suggested to be a result of the particular resonance found throughout Mozart’s music and the way it impacts the super-organization of the brain.[56] This observation has been supported by studies that examine the brainwave effects of Mozart’s music on coma patients[57].
  • Musical Instrument Differences. Differences have been observed in the brains of musicians that make use of different instruments. Most of these differences pertain to motor coordination, depending on which hand or muscle set is dominant with respect to practising a specific musical instrument. For example, pianists exhibit a slightly larger volume in the left side of the brain, pertaining to a right-hand dominance, while violinists exhibit the opposite trend in the right-hemisphere, pertaining to left-hand dominance. These differences are marginal in terms of the overall health benefits of making music poses, which are typically similar across musicians.
  • Competition and Performance Anxiety. Many of the benefits of practising music may be negated during a performance scenario, which has been shown to elevate stress in musicians.[58] Despite performance anxiety, professional musicians tend to age well neurologically, with a lower incidence of neurodegenerative disorders and a lower tendency to stress.

Musical Training Considerations

For those interested in developing a musical skill, the following suggestions may be useful:

Exposure and Interest are the first steps that anyone can take towards appreciating music, listening  and learning it. The more one immerses in music that one enjoys, the more inclined one is to learn. This is an ideal place to start. Most musical training begins with classical music, which is often useful for learning the basics due to its highly structured nature. However, it may be easier and more intuitive for one to learn and practice music in the genre they enjoy the most. Exposure to a wider variety of music also helps one to further understand what motivates them to participate in music and expand one’s ‘musical vocabulary,’ as well as the music-derived benefits.

Find a Music Teacher. When wanting to pursue music through an instrument, it is vital to work with a music instructor who can help one to develop the muscles and skills required to play. In many cases, an incorrect technique can increase the risk of injuries and related health problems later on.

Over-Practising is Not Advisable. As practising music is a physically demanding activity, over-rehearsing can lead to injuries in the same way that over-exertion can. Longer practice sessions do not appear to make a difference with regard to musical expertise, and sometimes, more progress is made when the brain and body take a break and are given time to consolidate. Over the course of a lifetime, musical practice can promote various types of musculoskeletal problems that are often related to repetitive motion. Warm-ups are important to any musician that wants to protect against injuries and other mechanical problems.

Conclusion

Listening to and practising music can both enhance one’s cognitive abilities by encouraging brain growth and connectivity between multiple brain regions pertaining to language, movement, learning, reasoning, creativity and processing emotions. Music is a motivating feature of everyday life, known to uplift one’s mood, reduce stress levels and promote balanced neurotransmission. The cognitive-enhancing effects of music may be helpful in prolonging the onset of age-related diseases, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease. Learning to play a musical instrument is known to be superior to listening to music in this regard. Additionally, deep musical appreciation has been shown to enhance the efficacy of many medical therapies, with the potential to lower anxiety, reduce prescription medication use and speed up recovery. Classical music and music that has a pleasant, calming effect on the listener may present the most benefit. Research indicates that anyone can learn music, provided they have been exposed and are interested in doing so.

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