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- Music isn’t just a mood booster; it can significantly improve health.
- While not directly related to survival, the latest research shows music’s capacity to promote positive health outcomes.
- Learn one simple technique you can apply to your routine to amplify the self-care portion of your life.
It’s long been observed that music promotes good health and healing. It has an exceptional and specifically physiological impact on us. The results can range from relaxing you after a heated argument to motivating you right before the big game. And while, intuitively, we may know or even feel these health-enhancing effects, the scientific evidence is mounting to validate it: the volume of research into music and healing has increased dramatically in the last two decades alone.
In Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, neurologist and author, Oliver Sacks, describes music as “both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings.”
Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher, considered music to be medicine for the soul; indigineous communities have long used song to restore the balance and sustenance to a frail body. Now, more research is coming to light that supports the use of music in healing for health issues like respiration rates and stress management.
It’s not just a mood booster. Music has measurable health benefits. Below, learn how these music therapies work and one you can easily use to bolster your own self-care practice.
What the Science Says
If you’ve ever gotten chills while listening to music, there’s now a scientific reason for that. In a study from 2020, researchers found that participants who reported chills from hearing a song experienced an increase in theta waves (brain waves considered to be responsible for free flow thought and positive mental state) in the emotional processing area of the brain. The intensity of those waves correlated with the depth of emotion and strength of chills felt by the participants.
But you may already know all of this instinctively. Roughly 50% of the population experiences shivers when listening to a particular song by activating the brain’s reward system—the same reward system that elicits pleasure for primary survival mechanisms, like food and sex.
But music is not a means of survival. So what is the ultimate goal of this particular reward signal?
In a study from 2019, researchers confirmed a significant increase in stress reduction–both physiological and psychological–due to music consumption:
- Music experienced as pleasant increased the intensity of happiness, which likely has a stress-reducing effect.
- Listening to music provided distraction from stress-increasing thoughts.
- Positive outcomes were observed when individuals selected their own music and when researchers pre-selected music for research participants. Because music enjoyment is highly subjective, maximal benefits were observed when individuals selected their own relaxing music.
- Positive effects were typically observed when individuals listened to slow and steady songs or relaxing classical music.
These results, while not directly correlated to survival, do correspond to lower levels of stress, which does have a positive association with health outcomes.
In other studies, participants who listened to music experienced more power and less disability when compared to their non-listening counterparts, while premature infants exposed to Mozart decreased their resting energy expenditure, which helped them put on needed weight faster.
In all of these instances, music is not so much the healer as it is the trigger. When these sounds are heard, the brain produces chemicals which the body then responds to. Some types of music may agitate, while others may make you feel more relaxed. Just some of those bodily responses, depending on the music you listen to, include:
- Feelings of comfort and security
- Increased dopamine levels
- Increased energy and motivation
- Reduced feelings of depression and anxiety
- Lowered blood pressure
- Decreased side effects of cancer therapy
- Heart rate stability
- Memory retrieval, which supports one’s self-concept
Further side effects, like music-evoked remembering, continue to prove that music is a lifelong aid and resource for emotional self-regulation. At a very fundamental level of the human experience (one that has yet to be understood by scientists), music acts as a resource for us to connect with ourselves and with others.
The way we process our lives and understand our identity is done through memory—the very knowledge of who we are is confirmed by the memories we store of specific experiences throughout life.
Music intervenes with memory. It works, much like a photo album, to construct and express identity by linking us back to our memories. Quite literally, portions of the brain that are important to identity and maintaining a sense of self become more active when a person is exposed to a memory that’s been triggered by music.
And maintaining that sense of self is crucial to well-being. Identity is needed to successfully navigate oneself throughout life. In people living with memory impairment (those with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia), there is a lack of identity. Through music, however, a memory retrieval cue can be activated. Certain pieces of music, specific to each person, can restore very specific events, places, and people that are the core ingredients of autobiographical memories.
The question is no longer whether music is effective in strengthening health and well-being. Rather, the next frontier is about how to better integrate music into everyday life to enhance these positive health outcomes.
How to Curate for Self-Care
One way to easily access music’s health benefits is by making and listening to your own playlist.
Curating a playlist is extremely subjective, and utterly up to you and your needs. But it can be an easy and powerful way to tap into an emotional state or enhance any daily experience.
Begin by deciding what type of mood you’re trying to capture. Maybe you’re looking for hope and joy; perhaps it’s a more motivational feeling you’re trying to embody. Whatever your mood, that should be the theme of your playlist.
Create a new playlist using your preferred media source, like Spotify, YouTube, Apple Music, Pandora, or Google Play. Find and add any immediate songs that come to mind—then, as you locate these specific songs, use them to direct you towards other, similar songs. Those songs may or may not resonate with the mood you’re trying to create, so only add them if they seem fitting to you.
Construct your playlist so that the end result gives you the emotional experience you’re looking for. Listen to the songs you’re considering before adding them to your playlist—if it doesn’t seem like quite the right fit for your mood, leave it. It is absolutely acceptable to pass on a song that, while it may hold significant meaning, is associated to some degree with negative or stressful emotions.
Once you’ve added all your songs, take a look at your new playlist. Are there any songs you see that seem out of place? Should you rearrange the order? Adjust your playlist as needed. Then, start listening.
As you listen, notice what memories pop up. How do they make you feel? Where do they take you? Try to be fully present as you listen to each song so that you can fully engage with the emotions and memories recalled. Experiment with different types of music to notice different responses. As you do, reflect on how you’re able to reconnect with a point in time and the benefits this practice has on your self-care.
This article has been clinically reviewed by Jamillah Hoy-Rosas, MPH, RDN, CDCES, and VP of clinical operations and program design at One Drop.