How music impacts on our mental health

Music is one of the few constants of life in a world which is always in a never-ending state of change. We listen to music, play music, or write music almost on a daily basis, making it an indispensable part of our lives.

It helps to evoke excitement on a night out having fun, comforts us through a rough break-up or the death of a loved one and can be a tool to help transport us to a place in our minds which does not exist in the physical world.

Music is extremely beneficial in many different ways and plays an important role in providing a space where we can all go to in order to process people, events, and express our thoughts without having to utter a word, which makes it an effective way to help maintain our mental health.

In this context, music should be given more credit than simply being a mere escape from the difficulties of day-to-day life and be considered almost as, if not, just as vital as the air we breathe or the water we drink.

 

A rich part of the human experience

Music is among the richest parts of the human experience, with endless ways in which one can interact with it, whether it be in a listening capacity, a playing/performing capacity, or in a writing capacity.

A report by the Global Council of Brain Health, “Music on Our Minds”, highlights how music can have a positive impact on our emotional well-being, which includes improving mood, decreasing anxiety, and managing stress:

“For many people, music is a great pleasure that brings well-being and happiness. It can encourage a sense of calm and fight depression. It can stimulate social bonding. Music training in childhood imparts benefits that may endure throughout life.”

These positive effects can be exhibited in several places.

Lyrics have the ability to convey what some of us might not be able to articulate to others or to put into words thoughts and feelings that are beyond an accurate description of some, with everyone likely having a lyric or a number of lyrics which resonate with them on either an emotional or spiritual level.

This can also work the same way for songwriters, which gives them opportunities to expel their bottled-up thoughts and feelings, while putting those words to music which they feel best supports the message they wish to get across. This can be an extremely validating or cathartic experience for some and could be a vital way for someone to clear their minds of emotional baggage, or to help build their self-worth.

 

Musical performance via instruments or vocals is the most immediate form of expression through the medium and has the positive impacts of encouraging socialisation. Musical performance also allows for the exploration of various themes (such as conflict, grief, lust, and longing), which can often be emotional in nature, and therapeutic in impact.

From a meandering chromatic jazz melody on a saxophone to a bombastically propulsive drum solo punctuated with changes in metre and tempo, there is no shortage of possibilities when it comes to expressing oneself through their instrument.

While playing music with others has become limited in a physical sense due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still ways to use the playing of music as a means to provide personal and emotional fulfillment. For some, a situation where they are improvising for the fun of it can quickly morph into a moment that is so emotionally satisfying, that replicating it becomes next to impossible.

Music is also a mood regulator, due to its rhythmic aspects. More often than not, we use music we listen to as a means to mirror the prevailing mood which our minds find itself in at that moment. While beneficial, this is naturally a double-edged sword, as more mellow or melancholic music has the capability to keep one stuck in an anxious or depressive mood.

 

Music does not always bring comfort or catharsis

However, it is critically important to bear in mind that those involved with music can, and do suffer adversely in terms of mental health, and as such, the music they expend so much of themselves into playing and creating may not bring the catharsis or comfort they crave.

Musicians can often suffer from more intense mental health struggles, whether it be a by-product of the industry in which their art is commercialised, the fame that comes with the territory, or their own personal background. However, these can vary from person to person.

These issues often play out more openly for musicians, or those in the creative arts in general, with some sadly succumbing to their problems long before their time. Names, such as Chris Cornell (Soundgarden and Audioslave), Chester Bennington (Linkin Park), and Keith Flint (The Prodigy), stand out more than others in recent years.

Chris Cornell, perfroming with Soundgarden (1992). Source: Gie Knaeps / Getty Contributor

 

However, it is important to note while musicians might struggle, and some unfortunately are unable to find a way through their problems, their work can help people internalise what they are going through and end up having a positive impact on them.

Soundgarden’s “The Day I Tried to Live”, a song written by Cornell for the band’s 1994 album Superunknown, is an excellent example of this. The song upon release was initially misinterpreted as a suicide song, until Cornell clarified its meaning in a January 1995 interview:

“It’s actually, in a way, a hopeful song. Especially the lines ‘One more time around/Might get it,’ which is basically saying, ‘I tried today to understand and belong and get along with other people, and I failed, but I’ll probably try again tomorrow.’”

A lot of people misinterpreted that song as a suicide-note song. Taking the word live too literally. “The Day I Tried to Live” means more like the day I actually tried to open up myself and experience everything that’s going on around me as opposed to blowing it all off and hiding in a cave.”

 

Therapy for the soul

Music is capable of evoking feelings and emotions in us which we may not be able to express on command – feelings and emotions which can only be felt and experienced at a particular moment, or within a certain context.

Music forms the soundtrack of our lives, enriching the memories we hold closest to us and defines the moments we sometimes would rather forget – that we can attach to the people who are near and dear to our hearts.

More importantly however, music is universal, yet somehow so varied in how peoples and cultures perceive, react to, and approach the subject. The “Music on Our Minds” report (page 9) states:

“All cultures have songs, and all have musical instruments. Yet what is considered beautiful or moving in one culture may sound alien to another. How music fits into rituals of life also differs among societies. Elements of music, including rhythm, pitch and melodic values, are expressed in differing styles around the world.”

Above all, music is one of the few unspoken ways that people can connect and communicate with each other. Whether it be through a listening party, a live performance (watching or playing), or collaborating to create something new, it is an immersive medium which will always have the benefit of bringing people together.

Simply put, anything which has the effect to help bring people together, generally can only be beneficial for one’s mental health.

There are fewer greater forms of therapy for the soul than music. If there is, it is likely we have not heard them yet.

 

 

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Adam Gibbons
Adam Gibbons is a journalist, photographer, blogger, and poet, who primarily writes on music, travel, and mental health. Check out his blog, "Mad for Notepads".

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