Music & Mental Health: What's the link?

September 20, 2022
5 minute read
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Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. As a broad term, it can impact how we think, feel and act. The nurturing of mental health is important during each stage of life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood as it ultimately affects how we manage stress, relate to others, navigate decision making and choose healthy options.

Mental illness, including depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and bipolar disorder have a significant impact on Canadians’ health, and social systems. 1 in 3 Canadians (about 9.1 million people) will be affected by mental illness during their lifetime, which is also in line with a global upwards trend in those affected by poor mental health.

Accessibility remains a crucial barrier to entry for some seeking mental health treatment for a multitude of reasons- whether that be poverty, stigma, cultural or racial underrepresentation in the field, geographic restrictions, or more. The gap between people needing care and those with easy access to care is significant, urging the need for alternative solutions proven to address symptoms of mental health conditions.

How does music reach the brain?

Music has a unique way of reaching the brain, as opposed to hearing any ambient sound in a real life environment. Whether you prefer to wear headphones, earbuds, or listen to your favourite tunes from a speaker, it can be interesting to examine how this music travels from the ear to the brain.

Research shows that first, the sound waves from an instrument or sound system reaches the outer ear. These sound waves cause the eardrum in the middle ear to vibrate. The middle ear then passes these vibrations to the inner ear which is home to the cochlea which has anywhere from 20 000 to 30 000 tiny hair cells. These hair cells react to different tones and pitches, depending on each individual song it experiences.

The inner ear translates vibrations into electrical signals, which are carried into the brain by neurons in the cochlear nerve system. The signals travel along this system to the brain’s cerebral cortex - the supercomputer part of the brain. In addition, other areas of the brain add their power to analyze different music elements such as pitch, rhythm and dynamics. This means that music is not processed in just one part of the brain- it reaches multiple areas that all work together to decipher, process, and enjoy (or hate!) a given song.

How does music affect the brain?

Listening to music has a multitude of positive effects on the brain. Beyond providing people with a background beat to dance along to, music activates every part of the brain and has been proven to result in various benefits. The processing of musical pulse activates motor areas in the brain which shows how music and movement are closely linked. Areas of the brain associated with emotions light up to process rhythm and tonality, while processing of timbre is associated with the default mode network to boost creativity. These findings allow us to understand how different musical features activate motor, emotional and creative areas of the brain- a method of processing that is unique to listening to music.

What are some of the benefits of listening to music?

Beyond listening to music for the purpose of boosting mental health, extensive research has been conducted in the field of music and the benefits it can provide to everyone.

Music can be a distraction that can alleviate some of the pain and distress of those going through hardship. A clinical trial comparing standard care to care with music delivered by a music therapist in the emergency pediatric department showed that music may have a significantly positive impact on the pain experienced by children undergoing intravenous treatment. Pain scores in those who listened to music perscribed by a music therapist via ambient scores diminished. Beyond the pediatric patients, higher satisfaction of care perceived by parents was exhibited, along with an easier treatment process experienced by healthcare providers.

Music can reduce pain and even result in pain relief. In a trial investigating the effect of music on acute, chronic, or cancer pain intensity in both children and adults, 51 studies were evaluated, yielding interesting results. Patients exposed to music experienced a lower mean pain intensity than unexpected subjects. Furthermore, within patients who expressed achieving at least 50% pain relief, 70% were exposed to music and therefore had a higher likelihood of pain relief.

Music can support pharmaceutical interventions, providing further benefits and caan potentially reduce the amount of medication required for pain relief. Three studies that evaluated opioid requirements two hours after surgery showed that subjects who were exposed to music needed 1mg less morphine than those who did not listen to music. 24 hours after surgery, the group with music required 5.7mg less morphine than the unexposed group- showing a trend towards music and pain relief even in the context of intensive surgeries and opioid prescriptions.

Can music reduce stress and anxiety?

Music can moderate brain structure activity that is crucially involved in emotional processes. This means that music listening may affect stress related emotional states, such as worry, anxiety, restlessness or nervousness. Various neuroimaging studies on music and emotion showed music’s influence on the amygdala, the section of the brain that plays a key role in regulating emotional processes. Furthermore, reviews on the neurological effects of music on emotions prove how music listening can actually deactivate the amygdala, in turn decreasing the intensity of stress related emotional states and instead replacing them with feelings of pleasure and happiness through the increased release of endorphins.

The postive effects of music listening reaches both physiological arousal in heart rate, blood pressure and hormone levels, and psychological stress experiences. Empirical research shows that music interventions have an overall significant effect on stress reduction in physiological and psychological outcomes. The results proved that music decreased physiological arousal through lowered cortisol levels, blood pressure and heart rate, which are all heightened with stress.

Extensive research has been developed regarding the use of music therapy to reduce stress and burnout, especially in high stress careers or situations such as in doctors and nurses. The mean perceived stress scores significantly decreased after a music therapy intervention for numerous nurses who are subject to notoriously increased levels of stress at work. The lowering of heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol levels along with self percieved emotional diress can be accredited to musical interventions, even for as short as five minutes of consistent listening.

How can music support better mental health?

Music and mental health are closely linked. Music listening can be used to regulate mood and emotions that contribute to symptoms of poor mental health or mental disorders. Because of music’s rhythmic and repetitiveness, it engages the neocortex of the brain which calms the mind and lowers impulsivity.

It can become a common practice to use music to match the mood one is experiencing at the moment. However, when in a depressive, anxious or angry states, listening to songs that emulate those same emotions may keep one stuck in that state. On the other hand, when music therapy is utilized by music therapists, there is the unique ability to match the music to the current mood of the person then slowly shift to a calmer and more positive state.

Using music as a form of therapy has existed for many decades, although it has certainly gained traction within the past few years as more studies, trials and research are developed to investigate the therapeutic potential of music. Because of music’s ability to stimulate association, imagery, memories, and emotions in ways that analytical and verbal process cannot, its impact is undeniably valid especially when delivered in a personalized, curated and accessible manner either by a music therapist, or through digital music therapy with proven clinical results.

RELATED: Music Therapy in Stranger Things

What type of music helps with anxiety?

Not all the music is the same, and not all music has the same positive effects on mental health and wellbeing. This is why it is crucial to be intentional when selecting which playlists or songs to listen to if your intention is to achieve an improved mental state.

Listening to music on major streaming platforms, even those labelled as “calming” or “relaxing” do not necessarily translate into the real life feeling of those emotions. Streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music may know a lot about you based on user and listening data, however they miss a crucial component: your real time mood.

RELATED: How well does Spotify really know you?

Binaural beats are an integral part of music therapy that have been shown to reduce feelings of anxiety. Binaural beats are the perception of sound that is created by the brain. Listening to two different tones at the same time, one in each ear, pushes the brain to create an extra tone- the binaural beat. Different frequencies within binaural beats continue to be developed, with each range being closely linked to different benefits. A study using the delta electroencephalogram range (0.5-4 Hz) showed that participants listening to binaural beats experienced a significant reduction in anxiety over a period of four weeks. LUCID’s original content library integrates soundscapes recorded on a binaural microphone to elevate immersiveness to reduce negative symptoms of anxiety.

RELATED: Exploring LUCID’s Nature Soundscapes on World Listening Day

Is there clinical research supporting the effect of music on anxiety?

The scientific journal PLOS ONE published the first peer-reviewed clinical trial showing the results of AI-personalized digital music therapy on anxiety.

The clinical trial was conducted by Toronto Metropolitan University’s Science of Music, Auditory Research, and Technology (SMART) lab in conjunction with LUCID. The results of the randomized trial showed that adults with moderate anxiety experienced a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms after a single session of AI-personalized digital music therapy, in comparison to pink noise, auditory beat stimulation or generic music on major streaming platforms.

Research findings from the trial support the hypothesis that LUCID’s music intervention is more effective than popular generic playlists for outcomes regarding stress and mood. LUCID’s intervention is highly adaptable, allowing for personalization of each experience to assess each individual user which offers distinct advantages over conventional music offerings.

READ THE WHITEPAPER: Comparison of LUCID’s Digital Music Therapy to Generic Functional Music