The Mental Benefits of Music

By Sean Barrett / March 21, 2021
The-Mental-Benefits-of-Music

The Mental Benefits of Music

-Sean Barrett

Music can bring us joy and contentment; as a species, we have created and consumed music throughout our development. Archaeologists recently discovered a flute carved from a wing bone in a cave in southern Germany. The fragile artefact is the world’s oldest known musical instrument, implying that humans have been making music for more than 40,000 years. Although we can’t mark a definite age for when humans first started consuming music, we have come to understand why and what benefits we can avail of when we do so.

It seems to be common knowledge that listening to music individually and collectively is beneficial to us, but here’s exactly what science says about music’s ability to enhance our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.

From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes no sense that music causes us to experience such vivid emotions. Why would our ancient ancestors be so genuinely interested in music? It isn’t strictly necessary for our species’ continued survival, yet it seems to be one of those human constants, a love for noise, rhythm and beat.

But as we all know, music can make us feel emotions. More scientifically, music has a deep connection with regulating human emotions; it does this because our brains release dopamine when we consume music, leading to us experiencing feelings of happiness and contentment, according to studies. Researchers have discovered that when a piece of music reaches an emotional peak, and the listener experiences these spine-tingling sensations of excitement and awe we call “chills,” dopamine is just releasing at its peak.

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That might explain why we enjoy music so much. It does not, however, explain why we formed this preference in the first place. Usually, our brains release dopamine when we engage in behaviour that is necessary for our survival. This is understandable; it’s an innate adaptation that promotes a more primitive brain to engage in more of these activities. On the other hand, music isn’t necessary for our species survival and shouldn’t give us the same satisfaction as it does.

According to scientists and scholars, this dopamine release is a result of our brain’s love of patterns. We probably evolved the ability to recognise patterns because it’s a necessary skill for survival. Is a rustling in the bushes a sign that a dangerous animal is approaching? Is the smell of smoke a signal that I should flee because a fire may be coming?

 Music is just a sequence of patterns. We’re constantly anticipating what melodies, harmonies, and rhythms will appear next as we listen. That’s why we’re often turned off by musical genres we’re unfamiliar with. When we’re unfamiliar with a style of music, we can’t predict its trends because we don’t know what to expect. This may explain why jazz is one of those music genres that many people find difficult to grasp. We become bored when we are unable to predict musical patterns. Our cultures teach us about the different types of sounds that make up music. The rest may as well be just a jumble of noise.

Our innate human love for music can also have a detrimental effect on our brains mental health, if your ability to produce dopamine is affected by a chemical imbalance, listening to nostalgic melancholic music may exacerbate depression symptoms, particularly if you tend to ruminate or withdraw socially. Perhaps unsurprising, but crucial to know if you want to use music to combat the inevitability of lockdown blues.

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Music has been shown to have several other health benefits in addition to affecting our mood. According to studies, listening to music will improve a patient’s immune system and speed up their recovery time after an operation. This relatively new form of treatment is called Music Therapy.

The American Music Therapy Association defines music therapy as the use of music to meet patients’ medical, physical, emotional, and cognitive needs in hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehab clinics, nursing homes, schools, correctional institutions, and substance abuse programs.  

The positive effects of music have led to the development of several customised music programs to aid in treating patients suffering from long-term illnesses. These treatments have been shown to help people with chronic pain manage their pain levels, with positive results being most influential with patients who have dementia. Music therapy is now becoming more popular as a way to help stroke patients or people recovering from specific brain traumas improve their speech and movement.

By understanding music, we began to understand human nature better, with the ubiquity of music across all cultures signifying the importance it is for us as a species; by producing and consuming more music, we are honouring the challenges our ancestors faced to bring us where we are.

Now that we know why we love listening to music and the mental benefits of music, we must remember to blare out our happy songs as often as we can.

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About the author

Sean Barrett

Sean is a 2nd-year politics student in UL (University of Limerick) who loves all things history related; Sean enjoys writing articles on Pop culture, history, art and music. You can find him on Twitter @SeanieBarrettJr

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