Guide to Using Music to Boost Mental and Emotional Health

individual relaxing listening to a boom box

Your favorite song may be the medicine you need for your emotional and mental health. Whether singing, listening, playing your favorite instrument, or participating in a music therapy session, music can be therapeutic for individuals of all ages. Music engages the neocortex, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which can promote a number of positive emotional and mental benefits. Discover how music helps mental health, relaxation, focus, energy, and more with this guide.

How Different Age Groups Engage With Music

While music can have a profound impact on people throughout their lives, its specific effects vary across age groups. In addition, the effects aren’t just related to the different types of music, although levels of music consumption and other features often change dramatically over time. 

It’s important to remember that not all individuals respond to music in the same way. Just like tastes in music can vary, specific emotional connections to a song, artist, or genre can be highly personal and situational. Unless guided by a professional music therapist, listening to music shouldn’t replace therapy or medication recommended by a licensed mental health professional.

Kids

Children respond particularly well to relaxing, slow tempo, and low pitch music. According to Children’s Health, calming music can help children feel less anxious, less stressed, less pain, and more positive emotions. Playing music in structured music lessons can also increase language-based reasoning, inhibition, planning, and short-term memory. If a child listens to music with an adult, particularly a parent or guardian, this can become a bonding experience that promotes shared emotions.

Teens

Teens continue to use music as a way to relieve stress and create bonds as in childhood, but with added benefits. Music is not only a way for teens to relieve stress but can also help them form their identity, according to Penn Medicine. The teenage years are also marked by greater freedom in choosing types of music and identifying the musical experiences that promote positive mental and emotional health.

College Students

This age group can face the pressures of employment, study, and identity creation all at once. In fact, college students are at greater risk of depression and anxiety than others. A University of Michigan study found that approximately 47% of screened respondents showed symptoms clinically significant for anxiety and/or depression.

For college students, music can relieve psychological barriers, according to Li Wenqin from the Art College of Sichuan University. Upbeat music may help students dealing with depression feel energized and focused, while melodies that are slower and more calming may alleviate some feelings of anxiety.

Adults

From coping with physical pain to enhancing positive emotions, music provides similar benefits to adults as in earlier life stages. However, adults are generally better able to identify negative emotions and select musical experiences that reduce stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings. Music continues to enhance brain functioning and may even stimulate new neural connections, according to Barry Goldstein.

Older Adults

Older adults report stronger positive emotional reactions to music compared with younger adults, according to Frontiers in Psychology. Music can even lower biological markers of stress in individuals with dementia, according to Balakrishnan R. Nair, William Browne, John Marley, and Christian Heim.

For some older adults, music can be one of the most effective means of communication. In addition, older adults with little or no verbal communication skills may still benefit from music therapy interventions.

Tips and Resources

While music can be a powerful tool at all stages of life, it’s important to understand how music helps mental health in specific ways. Discover how you can use music to relax, improve your mental health, improve your focus and energy, and heal. Learn more about each aspect of music and music therapy with the related resources included.

Using Music to Relax

An upbeat tune may be a great way to prepare for your exercise routine, but slow tempo, relaxing music can relax your muscles, according to the University of Nevada, Reno. Manage your stress and unwind at the end of the day or a stressful event by selecting the right song with a calming tempo.

Here are some examples of music that may help you lower your heart rate, relax your muscles, and reduce stress:

Using Music to Improve Mental Health

While many individuals turn to music to relieve stress at day’s end, it can also be helpful in dealing with  more serious negative feelings. Individuals diagnosed with clinical depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can use music in addition to therapy. Review the following resources for research on the effects of music and music therapy on depression and other mental health challenges:

Using Music to Improve Focus and Energy

Slow-tempo music may be beneficial for individuals with depression and anxiety, but upbeat tunes may help you focus on tasks and improve your energy levels. Uptempo music can activate both the right and left brain simultaneously, according to Dr. Masha Godkin at Northcentral University. This can stimulate your brain to improve memory and learning.

Review these types of music and productivity-boosting tips that rely on the power of music:

Using Music to Heal

Listening to music, specifically in music therapy settings, has been found to decrease pain perception and reduce pain medication dosages, according to Harvard Health. Patients have reported more control over their pain and lowered pain perception in a variety of situations, including chronic arthritis and acute pain.

Harvard Health also found that music could reduce the side effects of cancer therapy. This includes not only the anxiety related to radiotherapy and chemotherapy, but also the vomiting and nausea related to chemotherapy. Just like emotional and mental health situations, it’s important to carefully consider music as an addition to medically prescribed treatment options, rather than as a replacement to traditional therapies.

The Cleveland Clinic has found that music therapy may provide one or more of the following benefits:

  • Improved communication and social skills
  • Reduced blood pressure
  • Increased self-regulation and self-reflection
  • Improved memory
  • Reduced pain
  • Enhanced motivation and joy

Music Group Therapy

While listening to music on your own can offer some benefits to your mental and emotional health, focused group music therapy sessions can have a powerful impact. Discover how music helps mental health in a group with a trained music therapist.

What Is Music Group Therapy?

Music therapy uses clinical, evidence-based approaches to improve mental health through music. It can be used to pursue individualized goals, build relationships, or promote general wellness in individuals and groups of all ages.

While there are many ways trained therapists can use music, NAMI offers four interventions that involve music therapy:

  • Active listening: This is one of the most straightforward interventions and involves listening to a specific genre and tempo of music to boost energy, calm nerves, or perform another role.
  • Lyric analysis: How do the lyrics of your favorite songs make you feel? What are some alternative lyrics to songs that best describe your emotional state? This music therapy tool explores layers of meaning, emotions, and themes behind music lyrics.
  • Improvisation: Expressing yourself through music can be deeply therapeutic. Even if you don’t have any musical experience, instruments such as drums and rain sticks can be used to express emotions.
  • Songwriting: Combine lyric analysis and improvisation with songwriting as part of music therapy. This intervention type combines the lyrical and instrumental elements of music to create meaning and share feelings.

These are just a few tools trained music therapists use to help connect individuals with positive music experiences. While many types of music can be therapeutic, there are professional and educational requirements to becoming a music therapist. These requirements vary by state, so it’s important to review the requirements in your particular state when searching for a licensed music therapist.

What Are the Benefits of Music Group Therapy?

Music group therapy offers many of the same benefits as individual therapy. It also offers opportunities for the following benefits of group therapy:

  • Support network: Discuss difficult emotions with a group of individuals dealing with similar challenges to receive a powerful support network.
  • Diverse backgrounds: For some individuals, it can be helpful to see people with different backgrounds and personalities work through similar mental health and emotional challenges.
  • Healthy perspective: Music group therapy can remind you that you’re not alone and not the only one struggling with your particular mental health challenge or strong emotions.

While you may enjoy some of these benefits while meeting informally with a group of individuals to listen to music, a qualified, licensed therapist can select the intervention, facilitate the group, and provide practical steps to improve mental and emotional health.

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