Have you ever felt your mood improve while listening to a favorite song? It’s not your imagination: Music has restorative qualities that can lift your spirits, alter your perception of pain and spark old memories. “Music is processed all throughout the brain,” says Laurie Keough, clinical associate professor of music therapy at Nazareth College in Rochester, New York. “[That’s] why it is applicable in so many different situations.” Here are some ways that music may improve your life:
Music connects you with others, even when you can’t be together. “During the pandemic, one of the first things you saw people turn to was music,” Keough says. “In Italy, you see people on their balconies singing and playing together. We’ve seen the same here in the United States, but largely through social media.” Group singing offers a variety of benefits. In a study of residents in senior living communities, people who sang together for 75 minutes per week for 12 weeks improved their word recall and verbal fluency. These improvements may have happened because singing activates different regions of the brain, potentially leading to improvements in language, memory and processing of information, the study authors say.
Autobiographical memories are often closely intertwined with music from your past. How powerful is that connection? When people with dementia listen to popular music from their teens and 20s, they recall personal memories at the same rate as people without dementia, research shows. “We have a peak of autobiographical memories from that time, possibly due to it being an important time of self-development,” says study author Amee Baird, a clinical neuropsychologist and adjunct research fellow at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia.
A favorite tune can calm you on a frustrating day. “Music has an inherent ability to alter mood because of the way it’s processed in the limbic system and the way it releases feel-good chemicals in the brain,” Keough says. Listening to music regularly may help relieve depression symptoms, research shows, and the positive effects may linger even if you stop listening regularly. Different types of music were found to have the same effect — so whether you prefer Garth Brooks or Jay-Z, music might lift your mood.
Music therapy can decrease the intensity of chronic pain, as well as pain and anxiety associated with medical procedures, several studies show. Through music therapy, patients learn relaxation techniques that help with pain management. Soft ballads may be better pain relievers than heavy metal or punk. Pain-alleviating music is generally relaxing music — slower tempo, lower pitches, a repetitious melody — though “the music will be most effective if it aligns with the individual’s preference,” says Lindsey Wilhelm, an assistant professor of music therapy at Colorado State University.
Music therapy may help people with Parkinson’s disease or who’ve had a stroke to learn how to walk again or regain fine motor skills. A new report on music and brain health from AARP’s Global Council on Brain Health found that there is strong evidence that music-based treatment can improve movement in those with Parkinson’s disease and stroke. One possible reason: It can minimize the drudgery of physical therapy. Practicing repetitive exercises while moving to the rhythm or playing musical instruments may be more engaging than silent physical therapy, and the music may inspire movement from within. “Walking is inherently rhythmic, but someone who’s had a stroke now has weakness on one side and they lost that rhythmicity to their walking,” Keough says. “When you include a strong, steady beat, their body starts to match that beat, and that’s a neurological process.”
People with Parkinson’s disease often get quieter and develop breathing problems, but patients who sang weekly in a music therapist-led choir for three months became louder, improved respiratory function and maintained their gains for 12 months, Australian researchers found. Music therapy can also help stroke patients regain the ability to speak. With the help of music therapists, people can learn to speak things by first singing them, then learning how to gradually remove the melody from the sentence. “If I sing, ‘Happy birthday to —,’ somebody automatically wants to fill in that phrase,” Keough says. “It just comes out, and people can’t even believe that they’re singing it.”
Attending concerts could potentially reduce your risk of death. One study found that people 50 and older who went to concerts, the theater or the opera a few times a year had a lower risk of death from any cause during a 14-year period than people who didn’t engage in the arts. Arts engagement was also associated with a lower risk of depression and dementia, likely because of the social dimension. The benefits found in the study didn’t come from “people sitting at home and listening by themselves,” Wilhelm says. “All of the events involved social connection [or] interactions and getting out into the community.” —Lisa Fields