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Music on the Mind: Can Music Improve Mental Health?

Adia Harris, Contributing Writer 

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The key to longevity is to learn every aspect of music that you can.
— Prince
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Musics Universal Effects
Despite our human differences, music is a uniquely unifying phenomenon to which we all respond. Since the evolution of man, we have created and listened to music to enrich our lives through rhythm and melody. 

Both science and the media actively examine the functional and cognitive roles of music. But, at least from a cultural standpoint, music has always been a therapeutic and expressive medium. Consider African American experience. From the Negro spirituals steeped with the harsh realities of slave life, to the billowy tunes of jazz and blues lamenting social injustice, to even the complex, yet immensely popular multi-billion dollar industry that is hip-hop—music continues to change and develop as we do. 

Music on the Brain
It has been scientifically proven that listening to music elicits a strong reaction in our brains. According to Ellen Mannes, author of The Power of Music, scientists have learned music stimulates the brain more than any other human function. 

In fact, psychiatric studies have found music is even processed in different ways by our nervous system. Some examples include: 

  • erceptually: how we physically feel and hear music
  • Emotionally: how different aspects of music (intensity, harmony, loudness) affect our neural responses
  • Autonomically: how our autonomic bodily functions (i.e. blood pressure, heart rate, and  respiratory rates) are affected.

Utilizing technology such as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans researchers continue to investigate the interaction between music and the mind. One study, conducted by neuroradiologist Dr. Jonathan Burdette at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, researched levels of brain connectivity based on self-identified music preferences in 21 subjects. The results of the study showed listeners’ preferences, and not the genre of music they listen to, has the greatest impact on brain activity.

"These findings may explain why comparable emotional and mental states can be experienced by people listening to music that differs as widely as Beethoven and Eminem." Burdette stated about the study.

This arguably suggests music plays an impactful role in how we develop our sense of self and the world around us.



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Positive effects of music on mental health
Research on the connection between music and health outcomes, including treatment of mental health disorders is still in a relatively infant stage. Yet scientists are convinced, there is just ‘something’ about music.

A meta-analysis study conducted by David Levitin, psychologist and author of This is Your Brain on Music, found one study providing solid evidence that music can lower anxiety and cortisol levels in patients pre-surgery at a more effective rate than medication.

Although more research is still needed, Levitin finds the medical certainty of music as a form of therapy to be more than promising. “We've found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health-care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics.” 

Music therapy as a clinical course of study has been around since the 1940s, predominantly borne from the need to rehabilitate war-beleaguered veterans of WWII with physical and psychological issues. Today, music therapy is used in clinical settings to address a diversity of physical, emotional, cognitive, and social problems.

Some types of music therapy include:
The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) -- a common music-assisted therapy, GIM facilitates mental exploration of significant life issues, memories, traumas, and health conditions

Neurologic Music Therapy (NMT) -- often used in the treatment of neurologically debilitating disorders such as Parkinson’s, NMT facilitates the rehabilitation of biological movement. 

Drum Therapy -- a holistic therapy, mindful drumming has been found in some instances to increase production of cancer fighting cells and even change the genomic marker for stress.

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Utilize music for your Well-being 

We can’t know for sure what our primal utility for music is. But, we’ve all used music to elevate our moods, for social interaction, and even to remember times past.

Sometimes, music can be the best medicine.

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Here are a couple of easy ways to use music to improve well-being right now:

Create a playlist: Creating collections of music that generate positive feelings is a good way to regulate emotions.

Share music: Music is a great way to bolster social interactions and feel more deeply connected to individuals in your life.

Make it: No matter how you feel, music is a great way to vent and express your emotions without words.

Chandra C.