Music and Mental Health


Many of us love music, but did you realize that it’s good for your mental health? It’s true! Researchers have found that dopamine levels increase in the brain when people listen to music that they enjoy. Dopamine is the brain’s ‘feel good’ chemical, and it’s important for maintaining a good mood.


Listening to music is something a lot of people do when they’re struggling with their mood. Music speaks to us on an emotional level – just think about how filmmakers use musical scoring to create tension, excitement, sadness and so on in their features. Plenty of us use sad songs to help process our feelings after a break-up, or keep ourselves motivated at the gym with workout music. Some people even find that soothing music helps them to beat insomnia and get a decent night’s sleep. Music has a powerful effect on the human brain.

That’s why musical therapy is becoming increasingly popular. Through listening to and making music, people can learn more about themselves, about the way they interact with others, and about how their emotions work.

How does music affect the brain?

The effects of music on the brain are complicated, and we still don’t fully understand them. We know that (as mentioned above), music can cause the brain to release dopamine, which makes us feel good. It also seems to be creatively inspiring – lots of writers and artists use music to help them think up new ideas. We are not yet sure why certain notes or rhythms make us feel sad, or motivated, or make you happy, but it does seem to be a natural process which is embedded within the human brain. Just because we don’t entirely understand why something like music affects the brain doesn’t mean that it’s not a useful tool to aid good mental health.

Interestingly, different musical genres seem to have different effects on the brain. For example:

  • Classical music encourages dopamine release and aids in learning and memory.
  • Pop music is a powerful motivator, enabling us to be more physically active for longer.
  • Jazz is soothing, enhancing the release of calming chemicals like melatonin.
  • Heavy metal helps us to firm up a sense of identity, and is great for group bonding.
  • Rap gets us into a ‘flow state’ which is amazing for emotional development, creativity, learning, communication, and motor functioning.

Brain scans on musicians have also revealed that learning an instrument (or singing professionally) increases’ the brain’s levels of grey matter. This in turn helps with other brain functions, like memory and learning.

Music also has some mysterious physical effects. There are studies which show that listening to music regularly is associated with better immune function and an overall uptick in physical health. Again, we’re not sure why this happens, but it’s nice to know for music fans!

How can music improve mental health?

Here are just some of the ways in which making music can help with mental health:

  • Self-esteem. Learning to play an instrument, to sing, or gaining any other kind of musical skills is brilliant for boosting self-esteem. There’s something really satisfying about creating a beautiful sound, and knowing that you are responsible for that sound. Good self-esteem is a vital aspect of good mental health.
  • Creative expression. It’s important to be able to express yourself creatively. Creativity helps people to work through feelings and realize things about themselves which they might not otherwise understand.
  • Self-awareness. Making music requires you to pay attention to what you’re doing with both your mind and your body. This is fantastic for increasing your self-awareness. It can also help to enhance your physical dexterity and your mind-body connection.
  • Social skills. If you’re playing in a band, you have to work with others in order to make that great sound you’re looking for. This can help people who are shy or who have social anxiety to develop their social and communication skills, and to increase their confidence in social situations. This, in turn, is important for maintaining good mental health.

How does music therapy work?

Just as there are many different kinds of music (and different people have different musical tastes), there are also many different kinds of musical therapy. Participants may engage in one-on-one sessions with a counselor, using improvised sounds to work through past issues and current emotions. Or, people may join a group session, in which participants create music together in an un-pressured and non-judgmental environment.

Music therapy can be a part of other kinds of therapy, such as talking therapy or generalized art therapy. Plenty of counselors will be prepared to incorporate musical aspects into a therapeutic plan for you (although it is wise to choose a counselor experienced in music therapy if this is something you feel would be important to your therapeutic journey).

Simply taking lessons in an instrument or joining a band can also be good forms of musical therapy. However, it’s worth noting that non-counselling based forms of musical therapy aren’t usually as focused on well being as is otherwise the case. Things like pressure to pass musical exams, to be pitch-perfect in time for gigs, or even conflict with other band members can be bad for mental health. However, if you’re the kind of person who thrives under pressure, this non-professional kind of musical ‘therapy’ could be just what you need.

Finding a counselor for music therapy

Music therapy is becoming a much more widely accepted part of the counselling repertoire. Each year, more and more counselors with musical qualifications are accredited. There are many, many different kinds of musical therapy on offer, so do not be afraid to try out a few different counselors before you find one who is a perfect fit for you. For example, you may want someone who is knowledgeable about a specific instrument, or you may prefer someone with a more generalized skill set. The person you are looking for is out there – keep searching!

For more on musical therapy, and on finding the right counselor for your needs, please visit our website.

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