It’s common these days to hear someone preface any information they’re about to share with the fact that it’s from a study. And sometimes this is necessary to distinguish opinion from fact. So if we want to be taken seriously, we must cite our sources.
Forget all of that when it comes to endorsing the healing power of music.
Music is the most accessible coping skill next to breathing. Little-to-no ambiguity here. Nobody who’s ever heard music they enjoyed needs to be convinced by scientific data that it’s making them feel better. It just does. I’ll refer to information from some studies, but not to lecture and rather show how fascinatingly intertwined our nature is with the frequency of sound at the behavioral, emotional, and physiological levels.
Music on the Brain
First off, we’ve got some control here. Our nervous systems dance with the ebb and flow of life. The visceral sense of our emotions, feeling the urge to think or act a certain way, and the very words to the stories our bodies tell are all influenced by the rhythm of the autonomic nervous system. Because of this mirroring power between our internal and external worlds, listening to calming music can slow down our breathing, lower our heart rate, and induce a meditative state. For example, classical or ambient music tends to have a slower tempo and fewer abrupt changes in rhythm. On the contrary, if we want to increase our sympathetic arousal response (fight or flight), we can listen to music with faster tempos and a roller coaster of rhythms to supercharge us in the moments leading up to a physical feat.
Music has been proven to increase muscular power output, neuromuscular coordination, and reduce pain while exercising. It was also found to reduce cortisol levels in the body, which is the hormone responsible for triggering stress responses, involved in the sleep-wake cycle, storage of body fat, and so many other important bodily processes. Another study found that music therapy helped reduce symptoms of depression and improve mood in patients receiving treatment for various illnesses.
Music Mood and Emotions
Music can also be a powerful form of self-expression and emotional regulation. Many people use music to process their feelings, creating playlists that reflect their mood or using specific songs to evoke certain emotions. Think of this as creating a personal irrigation system to channel the flood. The nuances and complexities of human emotion are far too saturated for the limitations of language in a vacuum. Expressing how we feel as it fuses with the intensity or serenity of the accompanying sounds is one of the healthiest ways to reduce hyperactivity in the emotional brain, a common effect of trauma. It also helps us tolerate mixed emotions, in that there may be uplifting melodies with cynical lyrics, or sad melodies jam packed with hope and inspiration. Music is also the antithesis of anxiety in that it is predictable and mathematically sound, pun intended. The amount of concrete science and mathematics involved in musical architecture effortlessly stimulates the mind. There is a beginning, and a definitive end. The time signatures in which the music is written can grab your eardrum without any resistance and strike it in the perfect way.
Listen to the Music Play
If you think back to elementary school science class you should certainly remember the fact that energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred (and ROY G BIV of course). And that’s precisely what’s occurring when you’re “listening” to music. We involuntarily transfer all the separate, fragmented vibrating energy frequencies into what we hear as the “song”. Individually, these vibrations are no different in essence than the general hum and buzz of the world around us. But when intentionally combined to create a musical production something magical occurs. It makes sense. And you don’t have to try to understand it, it just happens.
This is why listening to music is a go-to for all. In the spirit of not wanting to have to work extremely hard to cope sometimes, while wanting to avoid something unhealthy, music is effortless. It’s also a cheat code to stack it with other therapeutic activities, as most of us already do, but do not underestimate the power of music listening being the activity itself. Some advanced meditators claim to be able to make “music” out of virtually any sound that exists. Whether it’s the birds in the morning, the wind through the trees, or New York City traffic and construction, these folks claim that there is harmony literally everywhere if we know where to look. For now, get out there and keep adding to the soundtrack to your life with the music at your fingertips.
Sean O'Connor is a licensed mental health counselor (LMHC) at Peaceful Living Mental Health Counseling in Scarsdale, NY.
Sean specializes in sports psychology and trauma informed counseling to helps adults and athletes overcome anger, depression, anxiety, PTSD and stress.
Sean loves working with athletes and survivors of childhood trauma and helps them heal from the past, love the present, and have hope for the future.
Sean is available to take new clients Monday - Thursday, virtually and in our Scarsdale office.
Contact us to start your healing journey.