Want to Improve Mental Health? Try Using Music (and Music Therapy)
Have you ever had that feeling – like “ugh this song just GETS me every time!”?
Or “I can’t put my feelings into words, but this song says it all”?
He started writing all of his thoughts on paper,
Realised music made life so much greater ♪
“Alone” – Nico Collins
When it comes to our thoughts and emotions, sometimes it is hard to admit them out loud, or to put a label on them. What’s more – we DON’T want to talk about our feelings.
It is okay.
You don’t have to attend talking therapies if you don’t want to.
This is what this article’s all about – to give you alternatives, choices and solutions to improve your mental health.
You probably would love it. And you already had what it takes to make it better.
Using music to improve your mental health.
Music and the Brain🧠
Let’s talk about our brains for a second.
Have you ever wondered why you do what you do?
- Why do we tend to indulge in ice cream and chocolate after a breakup?
- Why would we rather scroll on Instagram mindlessly for an hour than to start working on that project?
- Why do we experience success, then quickly do something to sabotage ourselves?
Our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are closely related.
In each scenario…
- The thought of losing someone and being alone makes us feel sad and lonely, so we want to find comfort somewhere.
- The thought of endless to-do items and the difficulty of the project is so daunting, so we find something else to distract ourselves.
- The thought succeeding makes us feel uneasy and unfamiliar, so we do something stupid to bring us back to the “normal” level.
Have you spotted the pattern here?
Behaviour is often a symptom of an underlying problem, not the problem itself.
Many people smoke, drink and get high because they seek distraction from bigger problems. They don’t have coping strategies to tackle the problems and tame their emotions.
Alright. So where does music come in?
Music is Motivating.
When you feel flat, stuck, unmotivated or think that you can’t succeed, or you are not worth it, music always helps.
Music with fast tempo and strong beats is always used in gyms.
Music with soft rhythms helps you relax.
Other music helps you focus and boosts your memory.
Music keeps your brain engaged.
Music alters your moods and in turn, behaviours.
"It's a Complete Brain Workout"
Do you know how does your brain perceive music?
Music is structural, mathematical and architectural (1). We process the lyrics, anticipate the rhythm, predict the melody, measure the velocity… there is a lot of information processing.
This is why music therapy is widely adopted in hospitals and residential care settings. It facilitates physical rehabilitation, neurorehabilitation and improves dementia symptoms.
Some people don’t remember their own names but can sing their childhood favourite song without making a single mistake.
Some people have unsteady gaits following an injury but could walk in sync with the metronome.
It is not magic – but the brain-music connection.
Music and Emotions 😬
Music can affect your emotions.
You know, THAT song which cheers you up every time? Or THAT song which reminds you of a past lover, thus makes you emotional all over again..
Music can evoke emotions in listeners, but it might not always be positive. If the ultimate goal is to be healthy and maintain a comfortable state of arousal, then we need to pay attention to our music listening habit, or consult a music therapist.
In music therapy, music is used in different ways to influence and regulate emotions.
Music and Emotion Regulation⛵️
Emotion regulation is an internal process through which a person is able to maintain a comfortable state of arousal by modulating one or more aspects of emotion. Successful emotion regulation strategies either alter the way an individual attends to a situation, interprets the meaning of a situation, or changes the situation itself (2).
Speaking of arousal, there is a concept called the Window of Tolerance, which is crucial to understanding stress, depression or anxiety.
When we are calm and collected, we sail along the optimal arousal zone (see dotted line). When we are angry, panicking or feeling overwhelmed, we are in hyper-arousal zone (see arrow upward). On the other hand, when we feel numb, flat or disconnected, we are in hypo-arousal zone (see arrow downward).
Here are some reflections to help you understand yourself better:
- What do you feel in your body when you are in hyper-arousal zone? (Ex: increasing heart rate, sweating)
- What helped you in the past when you were in hyper-arousal zone? (Ex: calming music, workout)
- What strategies can you implement when you are in hyper-arousal zone? (Ex: meditation, breathing strategy)
You can do the same for hypo-arousal zone.
When we are in either hyper- or hypo-arousal zones, it is hard (and probably unwise) to make any decisions. We can operate with maximised performance when we are calm and collected. With music being so accessible nowadays, it would be helpful to curate different playlists for different situations so that you can bring yourself back to the optimal arousal zone.
Handpan Guided Meditation 🛸
Different musical characteristics and experiences impact a person’s ability to regulate his or her emotions. The same song might remind pleasant memories of person A, but stimulate other emotions for person B.
Music also helps facilitate self-expression and promotes development of insight and growth (7). Sometimes it’s hard to use words to describe how you are feeling, but you can always use melodies, instruments or singing to express yourself. I love going to karaoke with my high school friends. It’s not only a great social activity, but a good outlet for us to
scream vent, express ourselves and recall the good old memories.
I also love pouring my emotions into my own songs. As Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy always emphasises, we all have a “musical child” within us (3). I like to think of it in 2 ways:
1 Music can effectively facilitate non-verbal communication because you can still express yourself with just melody or instruments without lyrics.
2 A song with lyrics is just a poem with melodies. If you are good at writing, it would be a fun activity to try coming up with your own melodies with your words.
Music Therapy for Depression😟
Depression affects 280 million people worldwide (4). It can be a serious health condition that not only affect one’s daily life, but might lead to suicide at its worst. Medication is the common treatment approach, but not everyone responds well to it. On the other hand, music therapy has been widely used as a complementary therapy in addition to standard care to treat depression symptoms and improve social, occupational and psychological functioning (5).
Advantages of Using Music Therapy for Depression
- Extra motivation for people who do not benefit from talking therapies
- Improve emotional and relational competencies
Music Therapy for Anxiety🥺
Around 275 million people suffer from anxiety disorders as at 2019. There is a multitude of anxiety disorders that cause anxiety, worries and stress. Like depression, anxiety affects daily functioning. Many people suffered from both anxiety and depression during the pandemic, which resulted in a rising demand for online therapies and mental health education.
Music can reduce blood pressure and affect the amount of stress hormones, which help relieve anxiety symptoms.
Advantages of Using Music Therapy for Anxiety
- Immediate and convenient anxiety symptoms relief
- Provide calmness and relaxation for people who need comfort and sense of security
Music and Mental Well-being💛
The benefits of incorporating music in your mental health journey go a long way:
- Improve memory
- Increase social connectivity and engagement
- Elicit socio-emotional behaviours
- Promote sense of identity
- Build resilience
How Music Therapy Addresses Emotional Goals🩺
Music therapy can help you with emotional literacy and emotion regulation.
Activities during a music therapy session can include:
- Active music making: communicate with your music therapist musically. Your music therapist employs a wide range of techniques (ex: mirroring, matching) to facilitate your self-expression
- Discuss with your music therapist songs of your choice: what the songs are about, what emotions are expressed, how you can relate to them etc.
Song-writing and/or Lyrics Substitution
- Create a piece of music with the guide of your music therapist, starting from scratch or using a pre-composed song and changing the lyrics to express your thoughts and emotions
Active Music Listening
- Pick a song, and engage in a music listening session with your music therapist. Pay attention to the musical elements and characteristics.
- You can use music to redirect your thoughts and feelings when you are stressed or worried
- Feel free to discuss with your music therapist afterwards about your observations and feelings
- It is entirely up to you regarding your interventions. Drawing while listening to music, starting a music journal, dancing to music.. your music therapist is always here to support you!
Note: music therapists do not provide diagnosis. Initial assessments will be conducted to set goals and directions of the music therapy sessions. If you are also working with a specialist or other allied health professionals, feel free to bring in your reports. All your information, resources and preferences would be helpful for maximising the benefits of music therapy!
See for yourself...
Healthy Use of Music💊
As mentioned above, everyone responds to music differently. It is important that we cultivate self-awareness in our mental health journey. Particularly, we should always observe how music makes us feel – physically and emotionally.
There is no right or wrong in music – however, if you feel that you don’t benefit from certain piece of music, it is a signal to change your habit.
For me, I know that I can’t focus on my work/studies if I listen to music with lyrics. I also know that I will not push myself to work harder in the gym if I listen to soft music.
It is alright to listen to songs that make you reminisce once in a while. But it also depends on the situation whether being indulged in certain memories is good or not.
Do you use music as a means of social bonding and identification, or to find escape from the reality?
Do you use music to validate your behaviours?
It is all about being aware, and being smart.
Further reading: Is Music Always Good For You? Promoting Healthy Use of Music
Music Therapy in Mental Health Settings🏥
Music therapy, as part of allied health profession, is often being practised in hospitals, residential care, schools and community settings – sometimes within multidisciplinary teams. Apart from depression and anxiety, music therapy can also benefit mental health conditions including post-traumatic stress disorders, bipolar disorders and schizophrenia.
It is easy to incorporate music in our everyday lives to improve our well-being. Curate your favourite playlists, pair music with activities (workouts, studies, winding down), and share music with others! It is crucial to build a strong mental health foundation, and you can totally achieve that with the aid of music.
Keen to try music therapy? Find a registered music therapist near you here.
2 Moore, K. S. (2013). A systematic review on the neural effects of music on emotion regulation: Implications for music therapy practice. Journal of Music Therapy, 50(3), 198-242.
3 Nordoff, P. & Robbins, C. (1977). Creative music therapy. New York: Joan Day & Co.
5 Aalbers, S., Fusar‐Poli, L., Freeman, R.E., Spreen, M., Ket, J.C.F., Vink, A.C., Maratos, A., Crawford, M., Chen, X.J., Gold, C. (2017). Music therapy for depression. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 11. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD004517.pub3.
7 Gooding, L. F. (2008). Finding your inner voice through song: Reaching adolescents with techniques common to poetry therapy and music therapy. Journal of Poetry Therapy, 21(4), 219–229. https://doi.org/10.1080/08893670802529209