Can just listening to music help your mental health?

Why does just listening to music feel good? Making and sharing music is a human tradition that goes back just about as far as humans do. From singing folk songs shared around a fire to a mother singing her child to sleep to multi-millionaire artists who record and release music now, it’s clear that music has always been important to humans. Not just to our culture, but to our relationships with our communities and culture, as well as to our own happiness.

What is it that makes music so powerful?

After studying it, we know that listening to music can literally help your mood as stress related hormones like cortisol are shown to decrease while chemicals like dopamine–sometimes called the feel good chemical–are released when we listen to music. Other studies even show that listening to music can help to manage depressionimprove post surgery outcomes, and ease pain. How?

“Music seems to “selectively activate” neurochemical systems and brain structures associated with positive mood, emotion regulation, attention and memory in ways that promote beneficial changes, says Kim Innes, a professor of epidemiology at West Virginia University’s School of Public Health.(X)”

So what can listening to music do for us?

Listening to music can help us relieve stress. 

Both within our minds and by easing the tension we hold in our bodies! Did you know listening to music actually promotes relaxation of tense muscles? So that stress we’re literally holding within our bodies can be released, offering quick relief. It also helps to reduce your mental stress, both through releasing stress reducing hormones, as well as giving you an outlet to release that stress–through singing along or dancing along, or both.

Listening to music can help improve your cognition. 

Studies have shown that having non-distracting music on in the background can help improve memory and cognitive performance. However, be careful to pick music that does help you focus, not just any music that you like. If your music is actually drawing your attention away from the task at hand instead of providing a wall of “white noise” to block out other distractions, your performance will actually suffer instead of strengthen.

Listening to music can help with pain management. 

In one study on the effects of music on people diagnosed with fibromyalgia, researchers found those who listened to music for just one hour a day experienced significantly reduced pain, as opposed to those in the control group who did not. Researchers have found a lot of results like this–studies showing that patients who listened to music before surgery experienced less pain than those who did not, that those who listened to music required less pain management via medications, and that even letting patients choose their own music could further still improve the pain management results.

Listening to music can improve your mood. 

If you’re a fan of affirmations, this one is probably not a surprise, but music can in fact have a real impact on your mood and emotional state! For example, one study told one group of participants to listen to positive music with the explicit intention of uplifting their mood. The other participants were instructed to listen to music, without the added instruction of improving their mood. Later, those who used music intentionally to boost their mood were found to report feeling happier after as short as two weeks.

So, is just listening to music enough to help my mental health?

While listening to music has been found to have similar results as meditating, it’s not as easy as just switching the radio on. If the purpose is to strengthen your mental health or boost your mood (and not just enjoyment) you can’t simply play whatever comes up first. It’s the combination of the chemical responses within our own brain when listening to music, and the intention we use when creating a mindful music listening experience.

It’s important to consider the type of music you’re listening to for the purpose of boosting your mood or mental health.

What are the lyrics like? Are there messages you don’t want to internalize when using music as a sort of mindfulness practice? What are the instruments used? What’s the beat like? When things are heavy and abrasive it can make us feel more distressed, rather than offer positive feelings. However, if your goal is to motivate yourself to do something physical, not to boost your mood, that could help!

Think of what you’re trying to accomplish with your listening practice! Are you trying to be calm and meditate? Consider music with a slow tempo, gentle chord progressions, etc–something you can match your breath (deep breaths) to. If you’re trying to boost your mood, consider the lyrics, the messages that you’re intentionally focusing on–music with a peppier tempo, something that naturally makes your body want to dance along (whether you do or not!)

The music that works for you will probably be different than what works for someone else, but you can find lots of playlists from others to get started. Here a few on Spotify you can try:

If you’re looking for support managing your mental health, our counselors can help you develop your own mindfulness practice.