Music’s beneficial effects on mental health have been known for thousands of years. Ancient philosophers from Plato to Confucius and the kings of Israel sang the praises of music and used it to help soothe stress. Military bands use music to build confidence and courage. Sporting events provide music to rouse enthusiasm. Schoolchildren use music to memorize their ABCs. Shopping malls play music to entice consumers and keep them in the store. Dentists play music to help calm nervous patients. Modern research supports conventional wisdom that music benefits mood and confidence.
Because of our unique experiences, we develop different musical tastes and preferences. Despite these differences, there are some common responses to music. Babies love lullabies. Maternal singing is particularly soothing, regardless of a mom’s formal musical talents or training. Certain kinds of music make almost everyone feel worse, even when someone says she enjoys it; in a study of 144 adults and teenagers who listened to 4 different kinds of music, grunge music led to significant increases in hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue across the entire group, even in the teenagers who said they liked it. In another study, college students reported that pop, rock, oldies, and classical music helped them feel happier and more optimistic, friendly, relaxed, and calm.
Music, Attention, and Learning
Everyone who has learned their ABCs knows that it is easier to memorize a list if it is set to music. Scientific research supports common experience that pairing music with rhythm and pitch enhances learning and recall. Music helps children and adolescents with attention problems in several ways. First, it can be used as a reward for desired behavior. For example, for paying attention to homework for 10 minutes, a child can be rewarded with the opportunity to listen to music for 5 minutes. Second, it can be used to help enhance attention to “boring” academic tasks such as memorization, using songs, rhythms, and dance or movement to enhance the interest of the lists to be memorized. Instrumental baroque music is great for improving attention and reasoning. For students, playing background music is not distracting. Third, musical cues can be used to help organize activities – one kind of music for one activity (studying), another for a different activity (eating), and a third kind for heading to bed. Fourth, studies show that calming music can promote pro-social behavior and decrease impulsive behavior.
Music and Anxiety
Many people find familiar music comforting and calming. In fact, music is so effective in reducing anxiety, it is often used in dental, preoperative, and radiation therapy settings to help patients cope with their worries about procedures. Music helps decrease anxiety in the elderly, new mothers, and children too. Music’s ability to banish worries is illustrated in the Rogers and Hammerstein lyrics,
“Whenever I feel afraid, I hold my head erect
And whistle a happy tune, so no one will suspect I’m afraid…
And every single time,
the happiness in the tune convinces me that I’m not afraid.”
Any kind of relaxing, calming music can contribute to calmer moods. Calming music can be combined with cognitive therapy to lower anxiety even more effectively than conventional therapy alone.
Some studies suggest that specially designed music, such as music that includes tones that intentionally induce binaural beats to put brain waves into relaxed delta or theta rhythms, can help improve symptoms in anxious patients even more than music without these tones; listening to this music without other distractions (not while driving, cooking, talking, or reading) promotes the best benefits.
Music and Moods
An analysis of 5 studies on music for depression concluded that music therapy is not only acceptable for depressed patients, but it actually helps improve their moods. Music has proven useful in helping patients with serious medical illnesses such as cancer, burns, and multiple sclerosis who are also depressed. If it can help in these situations, it may be able to help you and your loved ones experience more positive moods.
Music and Sleep
Many people listen to soothing music to help them fall asleep. This practice is supported by studies in a variety of settings. Just don’t try listening to lively dance music or rousing marches before you aim to fall asleep. Conversely, if you’re trying to wake up in the morning, go for the fast-tempo music rather than lullabies.
Music and Stress
Since ancient times, it has been known that certain kinds of music can help soothe away stress. Calming background music can significantly decrease irritability and promote calm in elderly nursing home patients with dementia. Music, widely chosen, lowers stress hormone levels. On the other hand, every parent of a teenager knows that certain kinds of music, particularly at high volumes, can induce stress. Knowing that certain kinds of music can alleviate stress is one thing; being mindful in choosing what kind of music to listen to is another. Choose your musical intake as carefully as you choose your food and friends.