Many of us use music to change how we feel. We play jazz in the evening to wind down after work, classical to get us in the “zone” to concentrate, high intensity music to stay motivated during a workout, or a ballad to console our broken heart. This is because we experience music as more than patterns of sound, we feel it inside our bodies. When music speaks to us, our bodies respond with changes in heart rate, respiration rate, and skin conductance. These changes allow music to modulate our behaviour and emotions.
The power of music to change how we feel is being channelled to treat mental health conditions. A 2011 randomised controlled trial found that, when music therapy was added to the usual regime of treatment for depression, participants reported fewer symptoms, not only of depression, but of anxiety, as well as an improvement in general functioning. Listening to relaxing music has also been found to reduce the subjective and physiological experience of anxiety in healthy individuals and those with serious medical conditions, including cancer and organ transplant patients.
Music’s impressive impact on mental state is not surprising when we consider how music is treated in the brain. Neural processing of music occurs, not only in evolved structures such as those responsible for language, but in primitive emotional and reward centres typically reserved for processing of stimuli like food and drugs. We might, then, conceptualise music as “auditory cheesecake”, a potent motivator that sways our emotions by inducing hedonistic pleasure.
Pleasure is not the whole story, however. Relaxing music also modulates levels of stress hormones via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. In the short-term, this relieves anxiety. If we look at the bigger picture, we know that prolonged levels of stress hormones suppress immunity and increase susceptibility to cardiovascular and other diseases, probably via pro-inflammatory mechanisms. Music listening, then, may not only improve our psychological well-being in the present, but it may have direct and long-term consequences for our physical health via reduction of chronic stress.
In addition to reducing stress, music has been found to benefit physical health in a range of ways, including by reducing the need for post-operative pain management, reducing hospital admissions and recovery times, and even relieving symptoms of nausea. There is also strong evidence that music improves endurance and participation in physical exercise, probably by modulating physiological arousal, mood, and motivation. Music, then, may not only directly support our health, but indirectly support it by promoting cardiovascular fitness.
Fortunately, music is cheap, accessible, has no side effects, and is well tolerated by just about everyone. While it should never be viewed as a replacement for established psychological and medical treatments, looking to music as an adjunct therapy makes good sense. Here are some ways to increase your daily dose of medicinal music:
1. Engage in active music listening. Create playlists of music that make you feel relaxed, inspired, happy, and focused, then pay attention to the changes in your body as you listen.
2. Play an instrument or, better yet, join a band, orchestra, or choir. Music is most enjoyable when shared.
3. Use a music discovery app to seek out new music. It is easy to lose interest when you listen to the same songs on repeat.
4. Spend some time compiling your perfect workout playlist, then run, leap, or shake it to the music.
5. Get in touch with a registered Music Therapist at www.austmta.org.au
*Article originally written for Diabetes Victoria.