Music is a universal instrument used for leisure and healing. The scope of genres adds to the universality of music. Think of the last time you were sad. Did you put on one of your favorite songs to cry to? What about the last time you were happy? Did you dance around your house to an uplifting tune? Whichever way you prefer to use music, as an escape or a constant presence, there is no denying music has a profound impact on human lives, even on animals.
To examine the positive impacts and effects music has on the human brain and mental health, Women AdvaNCe spoke to Jonathan Mitchell, a university psychologist. Mitchell is the Assistant Director of Clinical Services at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Florida, who uses music in his treatment.
Women AdvaNCe: Hey! To start this conversation about the intersection of mental health and music, how does music impact the brain?
Jonathan Mitchell: Hey! What a great topic! There are a number of different perspectives relevant to this question. Primarily, we believe that early humans’ ability to modulate tone, pitch, rhythm, and cadence in vocalized language evolved simultaneously with and use of music (and movement) as a means to enhance social cohesion and build community.
Across cultures, modern humans also employ music in early interactions with infants, which seems to contribute to bonding and attachment as well as emotion development and regulation. As such, the neuroanatomical structures associated with language and emotion are also implicated in how the brain processes music. These areas include, broadly, areas of the left temporal lobe, limbic structures, and even cortical areas responsible for motor activity.
Additionally, there are variables in both the listener and the music that likely alter the specific way that the brain responds. Age and degree of musical training tend to be the most important individual variables, whereas tonal quality and musical syntax (i.e., how melodies and harmonies are composed and structured) tend to be the most influential musical variables. Collectively, these factors mean that while the brain may respond this way in a general sense, other more specific alterations can characterize a unique individual’s response.
Women AdvaNCe: Can listening to music improve your mood? Does music have the ability to improve physical health? If so, how and why?
Jonathan Mitchell: Generally, yes, but there may be some caveats. First, it is important to differentiate between mood and emotion. Emotions are more transitory, whereas moods tend to last for longer periods. Emotions can be quite responsive to music. People often seek out music in order to elevate or minimize an emotional experience, and sometimes music that elicits a particular feeling will “boost” or expand that feeling.
For instance, individuals will commonly choose to listen to sad music when they already feel sad. Similarly, exciting or energetic music is commonly chosen when individuals wish to elevate that feeling. Much of the effect that music has on emotion may have something to do with the interpretation or meaning of the music to the listener.
In terms of mood, the research tends to support music as a mood improvement tool, though there are some questions as to how. It is especially difficult to isolate the unique impact of music on mood improvement because of both individual differences of the listener and the range and complexity of music.
For instance, among those who are depressed, it is possible that listening to certain kinds of music will precede a change in behavior. If, after engaging in that behavior change, the individual notices an improvement in mood, one could not easily determine whether it was music or behavior change that “caused” the mood to improve.
WA: Have you noticed any specific improvements in patients who listen to music to help them?
JM: Yes. Many of the examples that come to mind involve the immediate benefit of using music to self-soothe or manage a particularly strong feeling. Among these patients, the specific improvement often amounts to a change in functioning.
Essentially, while the use of music may not change the underlying struggle, it often provides enough of a buffer against it that the individual would be more able to carry out important tasks.
Some individuals also use music as a self-care ritual, relying on it to sustain or maintain positive emotional experiences as opposed to improving mood. For these individuals, particular songs, performers, or recordings may play a role that is similar to exercise, socialization, or self-reflection – in other words, serves as a coping skill and preventative self-management technique.
WA: Would you offer music as a resource to help someone struggling?
JM: I can, and I do. It is most important to ensure we chose music based on the most appropriate reasons. That is, I wouldn’t recommend specific songs, performers, or recordings; rather, the process of using music as an intervention involves fully understanding why music is being selected and ensuring that the individual understands this rationale.
WA: What are the best kinds of music to improve mood/boost morale?
JM: I suspect there is a lot of uncertainty about this question. Once again, the evidence seems to point to the idea that the best kind of music for this purpose is the kind that has significant meaning to the listener, is easily accessible, and can consistently yield positive benefits. Of course, most of us will agree that calming music is more so conducive to a calming mood and high-energy, particularly loud or fast-paced music.
WA: Any specific findings in your research/studies you either found or that stuck out to you?
JM: I cannot overstate how much we learn all the time about how the brain works. Often, between technology advancement and the sheer number of individuals working to solve important questions outpace what we discover. As we continue to learn more about the interactions between music and the brain, we will likely understand more about why and how music becomes so powerful.
Gabrielle Reeder is a freelance journalist from Tampa, Florida whose interests lie in music, entertainment, social issues and anything and everything relating to horror movies. When she’s not writing you can find her at a Billie Eilish concert or solving a Rubik’s cube.