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by Lisa Fields
Updated September 28, 2022
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:
1. Reducing loneliness
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.
2. Triggering memories
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.
3. Aiding your mood
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.
4. Decreasing pain
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.
5. Regaining strength
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 report on music and brain health from the 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.”
6. Improving speech
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.”
7. Living longer
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.”
• "Impact of group-singing on older adult health in senior living communities: A pilot study," Archives of Gerontology and Geriatrics, May-June 2018. In this study, 49 adults (ages 60 and up, mean age 83.6) without dementia from senior-living facilities took part in a 12-week singing group. For 75 minutes each week, they did warm-up exercises, sang and socialized. After 12 weeks, participants showed improvement in verbal fluency and word recall, along with respiratory muscle strength. Researchers concluded that group singing may be linked to improved memory, language, speech information processing, executive function and respiratory muscle strength in older adults. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "Characterization of Music and Photograph Evoked Autobiographical Memories in People with Alzheimer's Disease," Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, October 2018. Working with 10 participants who had Alzheimer’s and 10 same-age participants who were healthy, researchers played songs and showed photos of events that were well known over previous decades. The study found that memories were more often triggered by music or songs that were well known when participants were ages 10 to 30 compared with later decades, but that memory trigger for both groups proved to be “statistically significant” only for music-evoked autobiographical memories. Read a summary of the study.
• "The effectiveness of music listening in reducing depressive symptoms in adults: A systematic review," Complementary Therapies in Medicine, December 2011. This review of 17 published studies (randomized controlled trials and other studies with a control group) looked at the connection between depression and listening to music in ages 18 to95. Music, both recorded and live, was played without a music therapist or other healthcare professional. Results showed that people who listened to music over a period of time, rather than in a single episode, were more likely to show fewer symptoms of depression. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• "The Effects of Music on Pain: A Meta-Analysis,” Journal of Music Therapy, October 2016. A review of 97 randomized controlled studies published from 1995 to 2014 found that “music interventions had statistically significant effects in decreasing pain.” While distinguishing between music therapy (tailored experiences between client and therapist) and music medicine (prerecorded music played by medical personnel meant to distract and ease tension), the author found that both interventions have therapeutic value. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Music on Our Minds: The Rich Potential of Music to Promote Brain Health and Well-Being,” Global Council on Brain Health, 2020. The Global Council on Brain Health brought together a dozen medical experts from around the world to make recommendations about brain health and music, based on evidence from clinical trials and peer-reviewed journals. Read the full report.
• “ParkinSong: A Controlled Trial of Singing-Based Therapy for Parkinson's Disease," Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, May 2019. This controlled study looked at 75 people with Parkinson’s disease (ages 51 to 93, average age 74) who participated in a program of singing, painting, dancing or tai chi, then interacted with others socially. Programs were weekly or monthly. Those who took part in the singing program, called ParkinSong, practiced vocal exercises that focused on breathing, volume and pitch control. The weekly ParkinSong singers, and, to a lesser extent, the monthly singers, had higher vocal intensity scores than those from the other programs. Researchers concluded that these groups improved “vocal quality of life” and communication skills for those with Parkinson’s disease. Read the full study.
• "The art of life and death: 14 year follow-up analyses of associations between arts engagement and mortality in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing," BMJ, December 2019. This study looked at 6,710 community-dwelling adults 50 and older and followed them for 14 years. Those who reported seeing an arts or cultural event in person (including a museum, an art exhibit or going to a gallery, theater, concert or opera) once or twice a year had a 14 percent lower risk of dying over the 14 years. Those who said they went to an arts/cultural outing every few months had a 31 percent lower risk of dying during that time. These lowered risks persisted when adjusted for factors such as cognition, mental health and physical activity. As a population study, however, this research does not prove cause and effect. Read the full study.