The Small Joys Series - Music And Mental Health

“After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.”

– Aldous Huxley

Today, we bring you the second post in our ‘Small Joys’ series! In this series, we explore the mental health benefits of the little things- which are actually the big things.

Small joys can help us cope with overwhelming circumstances. They give us a break and a safe place to retreat when life gets to be too much. Looking back, it’s often the small joys of life that we remember the most fondly.

This week, we are looking at music and mental health.

Have you ever scrolled through an artist's Instagram and noticed these comments: "your music saved my life", or "this song got me through my darkest days"?

Music is special. It’s almost futile to try and describe something using words that conveys more than words alone can ever do.

This quality- to express the inexpressible- is precisely what makes music so important to us.

We are all grappling with the complex and often overwhelming side effects of being human. Many of us feel alone in this struggle. Yet, a single song can acknowledge and help us make sense of this chaos.

A chorus, hook, or bridge can do what a conversation cannot: capturing and beautifying the shades of our human existence.

Let’s spend some time together figuring out exactly how music and mental health relate to each other.

Our Lives Have A Soundtrack

Don’t you wish life had background music? You know, like in films. In movies, music enhances every moment. Try watching your favourite film on mute- I can almost promise it won’t have the same emotional impact without the music!

If you think about it though, our lives do have a soundtrack.

When you are heading home on a bus or train, you may listen to a song based on your mood that day. Or perhaps you wake up and pull the curtains back to see that it’s raining- you pull out your rainy-day playlist as you get ready for work. Later that weekend, you’ve got a bunch of chores to do so you put on something upbeat to try and infuse some joy into the process.

We listen to music to manage or enhance our mood all the time! Often, we’re not even aware that this is the reason we are listening to a particular song. Whether we intend it to or not, music has a profound effect on our emotions, and even our memories.

Music, Memory, And Emotions

The feelings associated with the milestones, hills, and valleys of our lives are frozen in time, and in song.

Have you ever heard a song and felt as though you were immediately transported to another time in your life? It not only triggers the memory, but the feelings associated with that memory too! The very essence of those days comes crashing back in an overwhelming wave of nostalgia with just a song.

The music we listen to during a breakup, while studying for a stressful exam, or spending a lazy summer afternoon by the water may be background music, but it becomes a part of our life’s track listing.

The research tells us that emotions enhance memory processes. And what evokes strong emotions? You guessed it, music.

To put it simply, music becomes easily intertwined in a memory as the memory is encoded in our brain. This is partially because emotional information tends to be more ‘sticky’ when it comes to recalling it later. When we hear that tune again, it triggers not only the memory, but the emotions associated with the events too!

In one study, researchers had participants listen to short music clips of past popular songs. They found that around 30% of the songs evoked autobiographical memories. Furthermore, most of the songs evoked strong emotions (i.e. nostalgia).

While the emotions evoked in the study were mainly positive, it’s entirely possible for music to trigger challenging memories and emotions as well.

We know now that music is linked to our emotional experience and even our memories of those experiences.

Moreover, present events can also colour our memories. For example, the music played at your wedding can evoke either positive feelings of nostalgia or deep sadness depending on the current state of the marriage.

Let’s talk about how we can use this knowledge to help manage our mental health.

The Many Mental Health Benefits Of Music

Researchers have known for a long time that music has several health and mental health benefits.

Yes- physical health benefits too! Music has been known to improve cognitive performance, stroke recovery, and ease chronic pain.

One study found that listening to music before a surgery helped to ease anxiety. The authors concluded that music interventions may just be a good alternative to sedatives and anti-anxiety drugs to manage pre-operative anxiety.

At the Centre For Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), they are investigating the healing power of music for depression. In this ongoing study, the team will explore the effect of music on the brain systems that often experience difficulty when we are depressed- attention, memory, and movement.

Music as a non-medical approach to treating clinical depression is an interesting and exciting frontier (not to knock on medication- but it’s nice to have options right?).

Your Nervous System On Music

One of the reasons researchers are so interested in music and mental health is the effect of music on the nervous system.

There is some evidence that music can alter pain thresholds, heart rate, and breathing. For example, fast music can get our adrenaline going and heart racing faster, whereas soothing music can calm breathing and heart rate.

Often during therapy, we work to improve deep breathing as a response to anxiety. Even though it is definitely less passive than belly breathing, music certainly has an effect on our nervous system.

4 Ways Music Can Help Us Cope

The interesting thing about this list is many of us have experience with using music to cope. In other words, it’s not ground-breaking information.

However, that is exactly why this topic belongs in the Small Joys series!

We don’t think about the large effects of these so-called little things. Yet, they continue to pull us through times of adversity, sometimes more effectively that the traditional ways. They deserve a spotlight, wouldn't you agree?

Music As A Stress-Buster

At some point, we have all put on some music to interrupt the cycle of stress and anxiety.

One study showed that relaxing music (compared to silence) helped students recover better from a psychologically stressful task. Another one showed that listening to music helped surgeons relax and perform better during the surgery itself.

When using music to de-stress or relax, slow, calming, acoustic, or even classical music is the way to go.

Physical activity is also a great stress-buster and you know what goes well with music? Dancing! Releasing the tension with a solo dance party. It will distract you, stimulate your brain, and even help you sleep.  

Music As A Mood-Booster

This is probably the most common way we use music to help us cope with life’s challenges. Sometimes you just need a boost, and there are few better ways to do it than listening to something upbeat, or a classic.

Our brains LOVE familiarity. The music we already know tends to have the strongest brain response and also the biggest dopamine (aka ‘reward chemical’) release. ‘It’s growing on me’ or ‘the more I listen, the more I like it’ captures this. This is why iconic tunes, epic soundtracks to our favourite films, and pop music in general gives us a major mood boost.

However, try listening to new music as well. As our brains get used to a new song, it provides a fresh source of happiness and pleasure.

Now, we know the opposite to be true as well. Music can also amplify sadness, anger, and aggression. Ever been so sad that you need an even sadder song to just let it all out?

Music can be used to explore emotions as well, as long as it doesn’t become a trigger for sending us into deeper depths of despair.

Music As A Motivator

If you listen to music while working out, you know it can take your routine to the next level.

Or maybe you need to just buckle down and get some cleaning or studying done that you are not looking forward to.

Music can make it easier to overcome that initial resistance by making the task just slightly more attractive. Sometimes this just need what we need to get over that procrastination hump and begin the task.

Music As A Source Of Focus

Listening to music can absorb our attention and keep our minds from wandering. While we can use music to distract, it can also be used to focus. Many people put on certain types of music to help with their mindfulness routine, for example.

Focusing on music with a steady tempo is also a nice way to practice mindfulness outside of meditation.

To really get the most out of this, music therapists recommend 'deep' or active listening. This means instead of having music on in the background while you do other things, try concentrating on what you are listening to. Notice the emotions, memories, and feelings in your body as you do this.

Wrapping Up

Music is one of the small joys of life. The impact of this particular joy is huge. When people say "music saved my life" it's no exaggeration. Music captures what words do not, and sometimes is delivers us healing that nothing else can.

Not sure where to start? Try this compilation of playlists for every mood.

Okay, now the fun part- I want to hear the one song that can make any day a little brighter for you! Leave it in the comments below!

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services