Music and the mind

As Mental Health Awareness Week launches in the UK, Dr Claire Renfrew explains the impact of music on your psychological, physical and emotional wellbeing.

The way we experience, perform and create music is changing. Increasingly, music is seen as a fundamental element of being human and, over recent years, its unique ability to enhance physical sensations and emotional connections has been celebrated by doctors and scientists.

We now acknowledge that music helps both listeners and performers achieve a sense of discovery, learning and development. And the latest ground-breaking studies in the UK and beyond show how it enables you to obtain emotional regulation, including a sense of freedom and discovery, purpose and fulfilment.

Music is also proven to alleviate, manage and reduce stress, anxiety and signs of depression. It helps to soothe the mind as it has an impact on the human stress response, and it can positively affect the nervous system as it stimulates the immune system and provides a sense of emotional release for individuals.

It’s clear that music satisfies a core psychological and physical need, and we are only just beginning to understand more fully its potential…

Memory and cognitions

In the nineties, The Mozart Effect promoted the idea that listening to classical music can increase your IQ. Since then there has been a substantial increase in evidence that highlights its ability to enhance memory and cognitions.

Music can be directly related to wellbeing, memory development and learning, and has been shown to demonstrate positive activity in the brain. It’s remarkable that even passively listening to background music can improve adult performance while undertaking cognitive tasks, such as remembering words from a list.

Additionally, music can encourage past experience and memory recall. This is beneficial to those suffering from dementia or brain trauma and who may require support recollecting long-term memories. In 2017, a trial found a direct correlation between the impact that listening to music on adults who suffer from memory loss in later life.

Music and sleep

Music is a therapeutic tool for sleep and relaxation, and has powerful effects on the body. It slows down breathing, lowers heart rate and blood pressure, eases muscle and physical tensions, reduces stress and anxiety, and triggers the ‘sleep-friendly’ hormones serotonin and oxytocin.

Previous research has indicated that listening to music before bedtime can make people fall asleep more easily and it has been used many times in treating individuals with acute and chronic sleep disorders.

Soothing physical pain

Numerous studies support the claim that listening to music can offer some relief and escape from acute and long-term pain. A report from 2006 found that when listening to their preferred music, participants were able to withstand induced cold pressor pain longer than the participants who listened to white noise or specifically designed relaxation music. This suggests that personal preference is a crucial influencer in relation to music and pain relief.

Additionally, it was found that listening to music before, during and after surgery can lower patients’ pain levels even though they may be unconscious throughout the procedure, showing the conscious and unconscious impact that music can have on pain regulation.

Music as therapy

Music therapy is a growing, evidence-based, clinical use of musical interventions, and its use in physical, emotional, mental, social, aesthetic and spiritual ways can improve patients’ health immeasurably.

This specific therapy is often used in rehabilitation and treatment programmes, as it can offer individuals a sense of pain relief, enhance relaxation and can improve their overall quality of life. It can also help to manage Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, alongside reducing the symptoms of some psychological disorders such as schizophrenia.

Learning an instrument

Learning to play an instrument can help to build confidence, relieve stress and enhance learning. Researchers from McMaster University found that one-year-old babies who engaged in music lessons with their parents had stronger emotional, physical and social communication skills than those who didn’t.

A musical instrument is also crucial in the development of speech and reading. It was found in older children that music lessons significantly improved an individual’s short-term memory and language-based reasoning, problem-solving skills, cooperation and social bonding.

Additionally, professional musicians often achieve a sense of autonomy and self-expression through performing music and playing an instrument, and a strong attachment can be formed between an instrument and its player.

Social inclusiveness

Engaging in musical activities contributes to feelings of social inclusiveness in individuals. In particular, there have been many studies that focus on the psychological, physical and social benefits of belonging to a choir. And it is proven that undertaking musical pursuits can enhance interpersonal communication skills.

Taking part in musical activities is a way to connect to other people and gain new skills. Often a collective identity can exist for those who share musical activities together, a sense of community, a way to develop personal, social and professional relationships.

Music and identity

We all have a musical identity that is formed throughout our early years as babies. Playing, performing and listening to music is a fundamental biological construct and often gives us a ‘badge of identity’. It can even determine what social groups we may belong to and influence the clothes we wear.

Music is also seen as a ‘maintenance activity’ that can address issues of autonomy and identity, helping individuals to achieve a sense of self as it reflects your ongoing journey of emotional self-expression.

Dr Claire Renfrew is a music psychologist who has hands-on experience working with songwriters, composers, performers and musicians across the industry.

She has also authored the article Creative Care: How to Cope With Being a Musician for M magazine. Read it here.