Music & Mental Health Research Project

Music & Mental Health


A brief overview of the effect of music on the brain

Music, throughout history has been a powerful and influential part of every culture. There’s no escaping the world’s only invisible industry – it is present or influential in almost every form of media. From adverts to films, video games to art exhibitions, dance to theatre – there’s practically a guarantee that music has played a significant part in the life of almost every human being. But what is it that makes many report music to be addictive? What about music can induce euphoria? And does sad music really make us sad? This paper will discuss and analyse the many studies conducted on the effect of music on mental health.

It’s a well known fact that listening to music can release dopamine in the brain – the “feel good” chemical. How does dopamine work?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which most notably controls or regulates the functions of memory, sleep, learning, behaviour and cognition, but most importantly for music, your pleasure reward system. When a person experiences something pleasurable, dopamine is released, triggering your brain’s reward system and urging the person to seek out the experience again. This very exchange is how people become addicted to drugs, food or sex. Many drugs, such as cocaine, or MDMA block your brain from diminishing dopamine levels in your brain, thus bringing on a reported feeling of euphoria. Music being addictive or bringing on a “high” in people is a widely understood concept: hence “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll”.

Even though music is not a vital part of survival in the same way that sex or food is, research has shown that day old infants respond to rhythmic patterns, and mothers across all different cultures and times have used lullabies or a rhythmic rocking motion to help their infants relax or sleep. Science has not yet agreed upon an answer as to why melody and rhythm seems to be hardwired into our brain, but the evidence thus far is suggesting that music is a core function in the human brain – and from an evolutionary standpoint, precedes language. Your body responds physiologically to music, and when you listen to a song you can find your footsteps, breathing or heartbeat start to sync with the tempo. Some therapists have claimed to help people who have suffered strokes or severe memory loss walk or talk again through the use of music.

There’s also evidence to suggest music enhances learning – chances are you learnt your ABC’s through a song. Music is only second to smell in our ability to store and recall memory.

Music as a tool to form connections has been used for hundreds and hundreds of years. German scientists conducted a study on the Mafa tribe of Cameroon, who had never listened to Western music before. They found that typical components and compositions of Western music were enjoyed by those who had never previously been exposed to it. The study asked the subjects to match Western music to emotions, happy or sad – and they did, spot on, every time. So is this something that is innately part of human psychology? Even more interestingly, when played the same styles of music, but tracks that had been edited to include off-beat rhythms and dissonant harmonies, the subjects found it off-putting and did not enjoy the music. This would suggest even further that human music taste (to a certain degree) is universal.

Mental health charity, Mind, advocate music as being “great” for a person’s mental health, and recommend (among other therapies) art and music therapy as a great way to improve your mental wellbeing. Art and music therapy are reported to work particularly well if “you feel distanced from your feelings or you find it too upsetting to talk about painful experiences, and would therefore find it difficult to benefit from talking therapies, such as counselling or psychotherapy.” Intuitively, the part of the brain that controls speech is the part of the brain that controls retention of lyrics and singing – so music therapy can encourage people to open up when they talk, or even help infants to learn to speak or enunciate better.

It is no secret or mystery that different music genres, keys, instruments and tones can have extremely varied effects on mood. Classical music has been shown to improve insomnia and regulate sleeping patterns among students. The researchers who conducted this experiment  stated that music can decrease anxiety, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate and relax muscles. Music at a slow tempo can decrease your heart rate, as mentioned above – the phenomena of physiological response to beats.  “The study showed that showed that music statistically significantly improved sleep quality” although interestingly notes that “sleep quality did not improve statistically significantly in the audiobook and the control group.”

The study also noted that in stressed and insomnia affected students, “depressive symptoms decreased statistically significantly in the music group but not in the group listening to audiobooks.” Is it not strange that classical music with no vocals is more likely to calm a person, than a human voice reading us a story? This could be linked to slow music and the physiological response it triggers being able to induce a meditative state. This is called Brainwave Entrainment – the use of rhythmic stimuli to alter brainwave frequency and thus brain state. In addition to inducing sleep, this treatment is often used to synchronise the left and right hemispheres of the brain. A person with similar activity levels in both brain hemispheres is allegedly less prone to mental illness, and more likely to be emotionally stable and happier. Synchronised brain hemispheres are naturally found in people who meditate or who are more content with their lives: that music can bring on this effect in people in a true testimony to the power of music in mindfulness and meditation.

Brainwave Entrainment, despite having been studied since the 1800s, is often criticised as pseudoscience because it is marketed as having unmatched healing qualities, and although the evidence for the technique points strongly towards it being beneficial in many instances, special treatment or pricey purchases are not needed. Simply listen to calming music.

A popular way of using sound to increase or change brain activity is called Binaural Beats. Many claim that binaural beats may “simulate the effect of recreational drugs, help people memorise and learn, stop smoking, help dieting, tackle erectile dysfunction and improve athletic performance.” This method is achieved by playing sounds of different frequencies in each of the subjects ears, stimulating your brain to produce a third frequency itself. This third frequency can be manipulated to reportedly induce sleep, concentration, happiness or a vast array of other effects.

Whilst more research is definitely needed in order to substantiate whether or not apps that produce binaural beats could improve a person’s mood or productivity, many users attest to the effectiveness of the technique. Other techniques such as monaural beats (binaural beats but played outside of the ear) and isochronic tones (regular beats in a singular tone) have been proven to be even more effective, however binaural beats are the most popular and readily available methods of brainwave entrainment. One user of binaural beats says, “I don’t know. Maybe because they’re the easiest to find on the market? Personally, I still use them too. At some times I like them more because they’re “gentler” and not as invasive as the isochronic tones.”

The array of research about music and it’s calming properties is astounding: peer reviewed scientific literature has proved that music can help cancer patients reduce stress and anxiety, reduce stress and anxiety in cardiovascular operation patients, ease recovery in stroke patients, help people perform better in high pressure situations such as basketball games or exams, reduce anxiety while driving and therefor prevent road rage, motivate people to exercise harder, help people eat less, help learning in children with autism and chromosomal disorders – the list is never-ending and research continues to accumulate. The impact on mental, and even physical health is practically undeniable at this point – so why do so many musicians suffer from debilitating mental illness?

A study by health.com compiled a list of the professions most likely to suffer from a mental illness, and people working in the arts came in fifth place, with 9% of artists having suffered a major depressive episode in the last year. Hellienne Livandal from the Guardian writes “Drugs and alcohol have featured in the lifestyles of so many performers for so long that sometimes it’s difficult to tell if depression is the symptom or the cause. Some artists, as Marvin Gaye did, use them to steady their nerves before performances; others use them to come down from the high of the performance.”

A study conducted by Help Musicians UK concluded that an overwhelming 60% of musicians suffer from mental health problems, and you only have to look on the news to see how many celebrities are being checked in and out of rehab, suffering from an eating disorder or even experiencing suicidal ideation. Steve Stack, director of the Center for Suicide Research and a professor at Wayne State University, claims that suicide rates among musicians are three times as high as the general population. Among the 2,000,000 people who die each year in the United States, the percentage of suicides among those who have died is 1.5 percent: the number for musicians is 2.1 percent.

Bryan Wilson, Syd Barret, Kurt Cobain, Ray Davies, Poly Styrene, Tom Waits, Jimi Hendrix, and even Wolfgang Mozart and Ludwig Van Beethoven are thought to or are confirmed to have bipolar disorder. In fact, the official mental health diagnostics manual for bipolar disorder states that “flight of ideas” and “excess pursuit of goal-directed activities” are two telltale symptoms experienced in a manic episode. Suicide and rock’n’roll especially are no strangers to each other. Rock-based genres have been blamed for many suicide cases over the years: parents, pastors and politicians claiming that the dark lyricism impregnated the minds of the young, vulnerable teenagers who took their own lives. Marilyn Manson, My Chemical Romance, Judas Priest and Ozzy Osbourne have all been blamed in some way for causing suicide of a young fan – including Manson being blamed for Columbine – when surprisingly enough, country fans are more likely to commit suicide than fans of any other genre.

A 2015 study by the British medical journal, The Lancet, interviewed almost 4000 teenagers who self identify as “goth”, a fashion-based subculture linked to dark and dramatic alternative rock music with sad and yearning lyrics. Their results showed that self identified goth teenagers are three times as likely to be depressed, and five times as likely to self harm than their average non-goth peers.

“Parents whose children identify with the Goth subculture need not be concerned,” researcher Lucy Bowes of the University of Oxford wrote to the Huffington Post. “The majority of teenagers identifying as a Goth in our study were not depressed and did not self-harm. The Goth community is traditionally very accepting of marginalised individuals, it could be that youths who feel isolated from mainstream society are attracted to this particular group, and may indeed gain support and help through being part of this subculture.”

It could also be that because alternative and darker subcultures, like goths, emos and punks are often given a harder time. In particular goths and emos are renowned for being in touch with their feminine or emotional side, and the links between goth fashion and music and self harm lead to people who identify with those subcultures being bullied. This could perhaps be the reason goths are more likely to be depressed – or maybe it is just a self fulfilling prophecy. Goths and emos have often in the UK been victims of hate crimes, and even murder, just because of what they are wearing. Like any study of mental illness, trying to differentiate between correlation and causation is a tricky task, and the relationship between a dark aesthetic or music taste and depression is definitely a complex one.

The likelihood is that people who are mentally ill seek out creative ways of expressing themselves, music and art being powerful tools of emotional outlet. Although, if the music you are exposed to can have such a massive effect on mood, is it therefore possible that listening to sad music can make you sad, or even a sadder person in general?

A small study of 772 people lead by Liila Taruffi concluded that no: sad music does not make people sad, but is more likely to make people nostalgic. As psychology has noted for years and years, confronting past experiences can be good for your emotional wellbeing, so it is likely that nostalgia from music can help, or maybe just delight you. This essay has already touched on music as a powerful tool for memorising things – and nostalgia from music is made doubly stronger due to this phenomena. Those with past hardships in their lives, for example a traumatic childhood may therefore prefer to listen to sad music, perhaps because they can better relate to it, thus somewhat discrediting the notion that “goths” are made sad by the music they listen to. This creates a cycle whereabouts people with traumatic experiences in their past write music about their emotions, and then those who can relate to this listen in order to cope with the trauma, or to feel less alone.

People finding sad music to be rewarding has been studied in an experiment about ‘meaningful media’. Mary Beth Oliver, co-director of the Media Effects Laboratory at Penn State University’s College of Communications says “In short, this research suggests that media entertainment can represent much more than just slapstick comedy and thrill rides. In addition, it can encourage people to reflect on life meanings, human compassion, and the importance of virtues such as kindness, love and connection.”

One could also make the argument that music in many cases can transcend language, which is why it is so useful for a therapy tool for people with communication problems. Perhaps when words cannot explain emotional distress, it is easier for a person to tune into a song and feel like they are being understood.

When you think about it, emotions in music and art are scattered in a piece by the creator, like a time capsule, waiting for you, the listener, to come along and unlock them. That is truly an astounding feat, and although music is so subjective, there are many similarities that all humans share. In a way, when you are interacting with art, you are interacting with the artist and therefore a sort of conversation takes place between the listener and the writer, using the song as an intermediary.

What is the purpose of emotion? It is a cue from our brains and bodies used in order to survive. It is our bodies thinking for us. The fear of the tiger chasing you, or the sadness of losing a loved one – it’s all there to help us continue our species and thrive, to live and to reproduce. My personal favourite theory as to why music moves us so, is moving itself. Movement is required to make music of any sort, and all musicians can attest to movement as a part of writing, performing and thinking about music. Written music has a flow and it comes to life on the page, it dashes around the stave and as you read, the music moves along. It is both linear and ever expanding outwards. As a synaesthete myself, I see the music sway and pop and jive in my head, and many people while they listen to their favourite songs may visualise fractals, colours, patterns or even full scenes in their head, like a movie or music video.

Movement is almost exclusively limited to the living. Though the sea may wave, and the wind may shake the trees, the tectonic plates in the ground may shift – humans and animals are the only parts of Earth that truly express with movement. We all have fear, we all feel pain, we all fear death and crave sex and nutrients, our ingredients to survival. Although some animals may not be able to understand fully the human severity of these emotions, they are all innately parts of us and we express it through movement. Movement and body language has evolved into dance, into every part of our lives and to me, music is an expression of movement, inherently. Why does this song make you want to dance? That is the capsule of emotion and feeling you have unlocked from whomever wrote the song.

When you are sad, you are slow. When you are happy, you can dance and you can celebrate joyously. Through shifting tempos, time signatures, melodies and harmonies, we can express these movements and vicariously, emotions to each other, and that is why I think music is the most effective communicator of emotion of all the arts – and why I strive to flow and throw myself through every life performance I do.

I have always felt that to be a great and influential performer, you must have passionate and emphatic motion throughout being onstage. I know that when I get up to play a show, I must embody each song fully, becoming the song, fully understanding and appreciating the tone and emotion of the melodies and beats. To convey your music to your audience live, you must confidently and appropriately convey the tracks’ sentiment. It’s all theatre, darling, although a great live performance in music is more like speaking in tongues than it is a dance show with a dress rehearsal. It’s about spontaneity, and really using your body as a vessel to communicate the song.

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