Psychological Effects of Music
By: Jaclyn Kotora, Contributing Writer
Edited by: Elias Azizi, Editor in Chief
Surely it comes to little surprise that music has a substantial psychological effect on people. There is nothing quite like crying to Billie Eilish and Adele or screaming to Linkin Park’s ‘In the End’ or Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Since U Been Gone’. Music is a source of recreation, mood enhancement, distraction, and even therapy. Research proves that music therapy can benefit individuals with various mental health and physical health conditions, and music can also be a medium for processing emotions/trauma and regulating anxiety. Often, people suffering from various stressors turn to things like journaling, therapy, and mediating, or more dangerous mechanisms, like substance abuse, eating too much or too little, and becoming aggressive to others and yourself. However, using music as a coping mechanism is a low-risk, effective way to deal with various matters.
This use of musical interventions, referred to as music therapy, can help promote wellness, manage stress, alleviate pain, express feelings, enhance memory, improve communication, promote physical rehabilitation, and more, (American Music Therapy Association). These interventions could be through analysis of lyrics, music playing, music listening, and songwriting. Lyric analysis encourages listeners to process emotions, thoughts, and experiences by identifying with song lyrics that connect to their experiences and feelings. Finding a song that one can deeply relate to can help an individual process in a way that may seem easier and safer than methods such as talk therapy. Additionally, according to The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), “playing instruments can encourage emotional expression, socialization, and exploration of various therapeutic themes (i.e. conflict, communication, grief, etc.)”. Music may help individuals express their emotions through sound using various notes, volumes, tones, etc. Similarly, songwriting provides rewarding opportunities for self-expression, as one can create lyrics that best reflect their thoughts and experiences and choose instruments/sounds that best reflect the emotion behind the lyrics. “This process can be very validating and aid in building self-worth. This intervention can also instill a sense of pride, as someone listens to their own creation,” says NAMI.
Furthermore, perhaps the most common method of music therapy, which is actively listening to music, can help regulate mood by engaging the neocortex of our brain. Noah Henry, Diana Kayser, and Hauke Egermann of Frontiers in Psychology explain that individuals can regulate their mood in 7 different ways: entertainment, revival (gaining new energy when tired or stressed through renewal and relaxation), strong sensation (searching for an intense emotional experience), diversion (distraction), discharge (releasing/venting emotions), mental work (contemplation and reappraisal of emotional preoccupations), and solace. Solace, diversion, and discharge are the most common ways people deal with negative emotions. Solace involves listening to music that matches one’s emotional state to feel understood and feel less isolated. With diversion, it does not matter if the music matches one’s mental state—the music merely helps people distract themselves from their bad mood. As for discharge, people will listen to music matching their emotional state to use music as an outlet and better express an emotion.
Of course, there are such things as negative coping mechanisms. Repeatedly using music as a distraction or positive reappraisal is observed to have a negative correlation with depression and other mental health issues. Also, while matching music to our mood does have its psychological benefits, it can also trap one in a depressive, angry, or anxious mood state. To prevent this, it is recommended to play music matching the mood of an individual at first, then solely shifting to more positive/calming music. It is all about tuning into your body and being honest with yourself—Why am I listening to this type of music, and will this make me feel better or worse?
Outside of mental benefits, music has more recently been recognized to benefit physical health. Music is proven to help manage pain, improve cognitive performance, memory, sleep, and motivation, as well as reduce stress. Music can induce strong emotional responses to combat stress and negative emotions that one may encounter, including stressors like social gatherings, work, the news, and the pandemic. Listening to music affects human stress response, particularly the autonomic nervous system, which helps individuals recover more quickly from stressors. In a meta-analysis of 400 studies, researchers found that music improves the body's immune system function by increasing the body's production of the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells, as well as reducing stress by reducing levels of cortisol in the body, (American Psychological Association (APA)). Recent studies also found that music can help soothe pediatric emergency room patients and patients about to undergo surgery. In fact, in some cases listening to music was found to be more effective than prescription drugs in reducing anxiety before surgery. In a University of Alberta study with 42 children ages 3 to 11, researchers determined that “patients who listened to relaxing music while getting an IV reported significantly less pain, and some demonstrated significantly less distress, compared with patients who did not listen to music.” In addition, APA goes on to explain, “in the music-listening group, more than two-thirds of the health-care providers reported that the IVs were very easy to administer — compared with 38 percent of providers treating the group that did not listen to music.” Although simple, music can make a significant difference. A music intervention can help make painful medical procedures more tolerable and comfortable for kids.
Music not only entertains but also improves your health and well-being. Unlike other potentially risky coping methods, music is a safe, fun way to help one deal with stressors and ailments in their life. By practicing music as a coping method, one might find satisfaction in its psychological benefits.