One of my favourite childhood memories is my dad with his headphones in whilst hoovering, singing his head off and dancing his way through household chores. He often said that music was his only way to stay happy, although my sister and I probably often dismissed those enthusiastic claims as enthusiastic lunacy. Now it seems that, in fact, my dad’s exuberance has a basis in science. Multiple studies have proved that music can offer an excellent boost to mental wellbeing, perhaps going so far as to make it a valuable tool in mental health research and treatment.
researchers found that dopamine levels were 9% higher in people listening to music they enjoyed
Understandably, the idea that music promotes mental well-being sounds like hippie claims at best and pseudo-science at worst; however, the science proves otherwise. Studies conducted at Arizona State University have linked listening to music to increased levels of oxytocin, often commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’, which is linked to calmness, contentment, security, bonding, and reduced anxiety.
Additionally, researchers at McGill University in Montreal found that dopamine levels were 9% higher in people listening to music they enjoyed. This chemical is associated with pleasurable activities such as eating and sex and serves to motivate and reinforce behaviour; it is responsible for the ‘chills’ down the spine during a favourite song. Music has also been shown to increase serotonin, a chemical which promotes memory, learning, mood, good sleep, and arousal. As shortages of all these hormones are associated with depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses, the tangible chemical boost provided by music makes it act like a mild drug – an indisputable benefit to mental health.
Other studies have linked music directly with positive behaviours, most likely boosted by the chemicals listed above. Listening to music has been proven to boost reading and literacy skills, emotional intelligence, mathematics, memory, concentration, and attention. Additionally, music with a tempo of around 60 beats per minute has been proven to aid the brain in processing information quickly. These improvements are more along the lines of mental functioning than mental health, but their benefits to overall happiness and wellbeing is substantial.
In a less scientific, but no less beneficial, observation, music is a way of experiencing the world that is different from the everyday humdrum. It gets you out of yourself for a while and lets your mind wander free. It lets you hear and feel things in a different way than speaking or reading – the two main channels of ‘normal’ life. In this way, it is a fantasy or daydream, allowing you to escape, relax, and rejuvenate.
if plugging your earphones in or cranking your speakers up is your jam, you may be doing your mental health a favour
There are some questions regarding the unequivocal benefits of music raised by conflicted studies. For instance, in 2012, Finnish researchers concluded that sad music could bring about genuine sadness in listeners, though this correlated to their levels of empathy and their relationship with the song. Furthermore, joy was also associated with the sadness that ensued from listening to sad songs, so, while detrimental in someone already depressed, these emotions were not all negative. As novelist David Mitchell wrote, ‘The music provokes a sharp longing the music soothes’ – an observation familiar to anyone sobbing over the Adele’s new ‘Hello’.
We’re all familiar to the elation that comes when a favourite song starts playing: the smiles, head-bobbing, and singing along, sometimes alone and sometimes with fellow music-lovers. It seems like this elation has benefits beyond momentary happiness, so if plugging your earphones in or cranking your speakers up is your jam, you may be doing your mental health a favour. Perhaps my dad was right after all.