Mental health blog: Music to my ears
Think for a moment about the idiom, “That’s music to my ears.”
For this idiom to work requires an understanding that “good music” elevates mood and inspires us. Music symbolizes pleasant experience or good news. The expression resonates widely because music is as universal as human speech in human society. In fact, musician and neuroscientist Daniel Levitin (2006) writes that forms of music such as drumming may have historically preceded language.
The capacity to make and enjoy music is a human trait that engages all regions of the brain. Music helps us to express and regulate emotion. Music is a trustworthy companion who is there for us during the best and worst of times, providing us with the capacity to explore, feel, hold, and release intense and difficult emotions. For this reason, music is featured prominently in weddings and funerals, birthday parties and celebrations, religious ceremonies, sporting events, graduations, wars, romantic evenings, and as accompaniment to a wide range of arts and cultural events.
We turn to music in times of stress to soothe and calm us, in times of hurt to comfort and heal us, in times of loneliness to feel connection, in times of challenge to inspire us, in times of joy to savor the good, in times of fear to find courage, and in times of change and uncertainty to make meaning of our lives.
Research on music has revealed that music can have positive impact on neural functioning and hormonal activity, promote healthy immune system functioning, cue memories of positive emotion and relaxation, release the body’s natural opioids and endorphins dampening down pain, increase dopamine and serotonin levels, and decrease cortisol levels (Krout, 2007).
In addition to music, calming sounds in nature, such as birds chirping or leaves rustling in the breeze, can enhance cognitive functioning and mental restoration. Spending time in natural soundscapes, such as restorative acoustic environments outdoors, improves health, increases positive affect, and lowers stress and annoyance (Buxton et al, 2021).
Tips when selecting music
- When choosing music, listening to music that you prefer or are intuitively drawn to will likely have the most beneficial effects on relaxation and stress reduction.
- Slow and meditative music can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, creating calm mental, emotional, and physical states.
- If you are creating a playlist of songs with the goal of relaxation, start the playlist by matching songs to your level of stress or arousal, and then progressively move to songs that are slower and less arousing.
- If you are creating a playlist of songs to elevate mood, open the playlist with 3 or 4 songs that match your current mood and then progress to songs on the playlist that elicit how you want to feel and think.
- Sing, dance, play, and tap along with the music you love. This will deepen your connection to the music and create an embodied experience that promotes wellness and healing.
If you’re interested in learning more about the wellness benefits of music, the neuropsychology of music, and the cultural and sociological underpinnings of music, check out the podcast I recorded with Jacob Hester in February 2021, “Becoming Wildly Resilient: Listen to the Music Play.”
Buxton, Rachel T et al. (2021). A synthesis of health benefits of natural sounds and their distribution in national parks. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences - PNAS 118.14
Krout, Robert E. (2007). Music listening to facilitate relaxation and promote wellness: Integrated aspects of our neurophysiological responses to music. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 34(2), 134-141.
Levitin, D. J. (2006). This is your brain on music: The science of a human obsession. Penguin.
Wilkinson, E. & Hester, J. (2021). Becoming wildly resilient: Listen to the music play. University of Kentucky Human Resources. Becoming Wildly Resilient: Listen to the Music Play | UK Human Resources (uky.edu)
Wood, A. (2021). Using the sounds we miss to find comfort and community during a pandemic. CNN. How virtual sounds can give us hope for a post-pandemic world - CNN