DIRT FROM THE ROOTS 18: MENTAL HEALTH AND MUSIC
Welcome back to DIRT FROM THE ROOTS, your monthly blog for discovering new perspectives on interesting, insightful, and obscure topics within the mental health and psychology fields. This month we will take a look at both the interplay between mental health understanding and music as well as ways that music can be applied for therapeutic use.
TOPIC OF THE MONTH MENTAL HEALTH AND MUSIC
"Music should be an essential part of every analysis."
- Carl Jung
The power of music may be one of the most incendiary facets of human culture.
As the late Bob Marley famously stated, “one thing about the music, when it hits you, you feel no pain”. In some ways, this conceptual idea aligns well with the impact of music in regards to wellbeing: the power of music lies in its ability to change our perspectives, mood, and outlook using just vibrations and sometimes in the span of under a minute. The influence that music can have on such seemingly immovable facets of human life is certainly appreciated by most, but perhaps even slightly undercelebrated.
Music is, after all, the only aspect that is present in all discovered cultures which does not serve an obvious human need, and perhaps this indicates that it is a human need after all. While not all people find benefit from music, a majority do and the heights to which the effects can reach are in some ways unmatched by any other experience we can have.
SCIENTIFIC EFFECTS OF MUSIC ON THE BRAIN
We will start by looking through multiple layers of ways that we can tangibly say music is actually changing us:
Multiple studies confirm that music can increase power, endurance, productivity, and reduce fatigue during exercise.
Music is regulating: higher tempo music has shown to encourage healthier breathing and heartbeat patterns.
Music brings dopamine: brain scans will show that the neurotransmitter behaviors in response to music can be as strong as responses to sex or eating.
Young humans develop more fully with music: before language is formulated, music is the universal means of communication which can be understood without knowing a word of any language. Some research even suggests music can speed up development of babies born premature!
Music boosts the immune system? Yes, there is surprising evidence here too— from a meta research study compiling over 400 other studies, no less. Adults who listened to music they found pleasurable saw a multitude of connections to boosted immune system function.
Music reduces pain: perhaps connected to exercise traits, music can also increase our pain tolerance to a pretty significant degree
With so many biological and interrelated mind-body connections we see from music, it is perhaps obvious to see why music permeates every culture. Maybe a better way to look at music would be closer to a medicinal approach; if you reread these bullet points and replace the word “music” with “medication”, they would all still make perfect sense, after all.
MUSIC AND MENTAL HEALTH
And as would be expected along with so many scientific benefits, music appears to have positive effects on mental health as well. Many of the following are derived from physiological reactions, but also can build to greater complexities and unlock more effective usage.
Music can help with repressed memories and emotions: much like smell, taste, and other strong sensory triggers, the power of auditory patterns cuing forgotten memories has a strong therapeutic value. You may have actually experienced this phenomenon at a smaller level– the same concept is occurring when we hear a song from middle school and recall a forgotten memory connected to it.
Music reduces stress and anxiety: an interesting way to look at this would be, perhaps bizarrely, as a guided meditation. Music can put us in the moment like few other coping mechanisms can, and this can provide excellent relief in times of stress and anxiety.
Relaxing music can promote sleep and rest: music at 60 BPM (beats per minute) has shown to scientifically induce sleep. After all, we do have an entire section of music dedicated to the very concept that a majority of humans will experience from the very beginning of life: lullabies. “Music has charms to soothe a savage beast”.
And high tempo music can increase motivation and energy: Music above 150 BPM, particularly using major third chords and with upbeat lyrics, is statistically correlated with rising happiness and motivation. Another very cool benefit about music is that it suits all needs. We can listen to dreamy, ethereal music that sounds like we are floating through clouds to fall asleep; we can also listen to speed metal at 250 BPM and find we have significantly more stamina while doing strenuous activities.
Music can shift emotional states very quickly: and as can be inferred by all of these, music has a better shot than most activities at making a seemingly impossible mood change. While listening to calm music may not calm us down entirely, it is discouraging to escalation at the least and does hold the potential to shift us towards a more regulated space. And while upbeat music is no surefire cure to the blues, we have seen plenty of representation of how it can loosen us up and if even just temporarily give a boost to how we are feeling. Another angle here is the musical facilitation of excitation transfer: if we are feeling nervous about a public race and then hear our favorite song blaring as we get ready, there is a good chance that we can shift this negative emotional energy into positive energy towards the goal.
Listening to music is correlated with improvements in memory and self awareness: while we do not yet have an advanced enough understanding of details regarding non-verbal communication to see any hard evidence of such, there is ample suggesting that listening to music is eliciting undiscovered growth via studies comparing quality of life, cognition, and memory between those who listen to music frequently and those who do not.
INTERPRETATION OF MUSIC
Here’s a question I love to ask people– seriously, I ask this weekly– is there such a thing as a bad song?
Subjectively, of course. If we are speaking from my musical preference, I can give you hundreds. But that being said, objectively, music is as valuable as any listener finds it to be. I have seen individuals dance and seem to enjoy music that I was perceiving as anxiety-provoking and dreadful; I like songs that others seem to abhor. The beauty in this comes from the interpretation of how we understand music.
Many people– myself included, in some ways– report that music provides intangible expression, understanding, and communication benefits that would otherwise not be accessible. Here are a few examples of ways that music interpretation can go beyond just appreciation.
Lyrical interpretation: From the most basic perspective, this is a direct way that we appreciate music– lyrics can provoke and inspire us by simply offering an intriguing thought or a moving message. The beauty of lyrical interpretation is twofold: a) we didn’t actually say what we are interpreting, and b) interpretation is neither right nor wrong for any subjective opinion. Similar to our example last month about how watching representation of a certain condition can almost subconsciously spur an unseen connection to our own experience, lyrics may put how we are feeling into words much better than we can. Additionally, we have a buffer between the vulnerability of expressing our raw emotions by using relation to a message said by someone else. The power of poetic rhyme is also very beneficial– our brains, put most simply, even further appreciate a relatable message when the wording seems to be perfectly articulated on top of it.
Music as education: this can actually be true in a literal sense– continuing the previous sentence, the function of rhyming in music is legitimately as simple as making words easier to remember, and therefore educational information is more quickly absorbed through song. But additionally, music can provide some of the most visceral and impactful viewpoints of other perspectives by its very nature. Many genres– blues, rap, and country, for example– have common themes within their lyrical patterns which give a firsthand view into the narrative, emotions, and ideologies of a specific experience that happened to another individual which can create empathy, awareness, and respect within the listener that may never happen otherwise.
Musical education also creates opportunities to spread information that may be suppressed or ignored in similar mediums. An intriguing and perhaps comical example of this from my personal life: as irreverent and silly as the song “Crazy Rap” by the artist Afroman is, it was my curiosity around the line “when the Afroman walked through the white land, houses went up for sale!” that first sparked my awareness of systemic racism in middle school.
Music promotes self-discovery: While this statement is not true in full– you have very likely heard of the cliche issue of the “studio creatively controlling the artist” – music does possess a unique ability to permeate issues of intersectionality and oppression by spreading lyrical messages that are not necessarily ‘screened’ or ‘watered down’, creating an avenue of representation and advocacy in certain situations. Even with less controversial scenarios, the power of relating to a vulnerable or unexpected statement within lyrics can be very influential, especially if it is an artist we see very favorably. Additionally, the music we listen to creates our identity in part: the artists that we listen to can reinforce our individuality, tenets, and personality style, and alert others of this as well. We feel in-group connection to those that agree, and we can have playful fun with those we differ from.
Playing music as means of expression: There is a certain indescribable release of emotion that occurs through playing instruments, and particularly for those who have difficulties with communication can be the most effective means of expression. As a bass player of 16 years, this is something I completely relate to on a personal level, and we will elaborate further in just a few sections.
Music is an opinion everyone is equally entitled to: And a final, abstract view on benefits of music? Music taste is a topic that everyone can potentially discuss in a confident, comfortable, and meaningful way. There is no right or wrong, there are endless valid angles of observation and assessment around music, and all opinions given are by nature subjective and nonthreatening. Unlike more challenging debates such as politics, world affairs, and the like, discussions around music have the rare ability to be stimulating, emotional, compelling, but also safe. I try to bring up musical preferences with most clients that I work with for this exact reason!
MUSICAL ARTISTS AND REPRESENTATION
A further, perhaps secondary benefit of music on mental health is the advocacy and representation that is created by the artists themselves. Rolling Stone magazine posted a very interesting article recently highlighting how not only the pressures and irregularities in the life of a musician can escalate mental health issues but also how those inclined to creative right-brained thinking may also be more in touch with feelings and therefore be more sensitive towards mental conditions.
Especially in the modern day, there are so many public testimonies and accounts of mental health struggles from artists that the list would be too exhaustive to put here. Particularly around anxiety and depression, we are hearing more and more normalizing statements that show just how influential and powerful public representation of mental health can be. One study even showed that ‘parasocial contact’-- a term that refers to the psychological impact that is experienced by audiences from performers in mass media– can have tangible impact on overall perception: the study showed that the disclosure of a bipolar diagnosis from singer Demi Lovato was actually correlated with less stigmatized views of the condition in general.
Additionally, musical artists can be some of the largest advocates to break stigmas and assumptions around seeking mental health treatment. Similarly to cinematic representation examples, the ‘celebrity’ angle gives artist opinions a much larger platform, and given the intimacy of lyrical and musical expression, perhaps even more ‘buy-in’ for fans to actually pay attention to what has been said. While a teenager might be hesitant to seek therapy when told by a school counselor or parents, they may have an entirely different perception on seeking therapy when their favorite rapper is advocating how they benefited from it.
Ultimately, music artists hold a unique and powerful role in the ability to advocate beyond normative expectations due to the nature of their platform. A catchy melody is an excellent vessel for crucial information to be spread.
EFFECTIVE TYPES OF MUSIC THERAPY
Treatment using music has a wide range of applications across many different conditions. Here are the five ‘domains’ of music therapy that can be utilized:
SOCIAL GOALS: Music is a universal communication form which does not require an understanding of verbal language, body language, nor written word to transmit effectively. Some individuals may feel more comfortable working with others in a musical sense, some may find more confidence and diction when playing music, and some might only be able to communicate themselves via music. Music can also be used as stimulation factor in social interaction, whether creating something to discuss in general or easing socially awkward silence.
EMOTIONAL GOALS: similarly to communication, music offers an emotional release which may not be attainable through any other medium. This might come from lyrical interpretation– listening to a song with heavy emotional themes and assessing response– or may come from the simplicity of someone finding it easier to play a heavy distorted guitar riff to express anger rather than finding the words for it.
COGNITIVE GOALS: reintegrating with the scientific benefits of music, some therapy modules will approach memory and cognition with musical aid, whether using it as a simple mnemonic device or to trigger memories. Another interesting way to utilize music in a cognitive sense is through association of certain songs (or parts of a song) with a behavior, using the conditioning mechanics to strengthen connections within the brain.
COMMUNICATION GOALS: similar to how social goals of music therapy may facilitate new forms of communication, communication goals work the opposite way. While music may offer new avenues for an individual to be understood themselves, they may also better understand social rules through music. An example of this can be seen in a “call and response” exercise: if the therapist sings a verse and requests the client to repeat him, we now have a nonjudgemental way to highlight where social differences or misunderstandings may exist. While an individual with autism may not effectively recognize when they are speaking at an inappropriate volume in a social setting, it may be crystal clear in a musical one.
PHYSICAL GOALS: and finally, the simple ‘healing’ or ‘energizing’ forces of music come into play here as well. Music can be used to induce relaxation, rest, sleep, calmness, and peace as well as motivation, energy, adrenaline, and determination. In the most literal sense, physical movement such as dancing or rhythmic movement can also create mental health improvements.
INCORPORATING MUSIC INTO LIFE
Chances are, you already incorporate music into life. Here are a few novel ideas considering all of the unharnessed and untapped potential uses music has to offer:
During (accessible) impatient/tense/uncomfortable situations: when it comes to a long car trip, an airport terminal, or a waiting room, we probably considered this option first. But what if we are frustrated waiting in line to get coffee in the morning? What if we get overwhelmed while grocery shopping? Maybe we are just overstimulated from walking through a crowded area? Music can be just as, if not more beneficial in these small, seemingly meaningless moments. Many may relate to just how impactful one small annoyance can unfortunately end up being, and this is a great “hack” that many may be overlooking despite having the necessary equipment in their pockets at most times.
Cathartic Listening: perhaps something we have seen either comically or seriously portrayed through some form of media, listening to sad songs to evoke crying or fast, saturated tones to vent anger or frustration can do wonders to alleviate our mood. If you recall many previous discussions around the difficulty of venting emotions, particularly stigmatized ones, music offers one of the safest releases to extreme negative emotions. While reactionary fury producing destruction of actual property is valid emotional release, it likely has very negative consequences. The same sensation may find significant release should the individual instead choose to listen to very aggressive and heavy music, particularly if accompanied by some sort of physical component.
NEURODIVERGENT SPECIAL! To Focus: Despite a seemingly obvious contradiction, neurodivergent brains may actually benefit from music while doing activities such as reading, studying, writing, and similar activities, as the music can distract intrusive thoughts and secondary thought streams to keep the individual focused on what is at hand. Some may prefer traditional relaxing or classical music, many have found enhanced benefit when listening to video game soundtracks, as they are designed to keep the listener focused and determined, or perhaps you are like my good friend and roommate in undergraduate who was once kicked out of a library because the EDM music he was listening to was too loud, even through headphones. One tip I would recommend here is to look for music that we are familiar with or that we would not pay too much attention to the lyrics– while I have found great success employing this strategy, there is a caveat to times when I have really liked a song/engaged with lyrics and became distracted.
Going to a concert… alone!: this dips into a whole series of traditional group activities that I believe most people should try solo, but going to a concert alone may be the best of all experiences. For context here, removing the unspoken social obligations that arise in any group event tends to lead to reports of individuals feeling more engaged and emotionally connected in concerts they go to alone compared to typical experiences.
The value of music is, to some degree, invaluable.
Let’s finish with a real life example of Pearl Jam lead singer Eddie Vedder’s lyrics on their hit song “Alive”. When he wrote the lyrics to this song– more or less a direct, highly uncomfortable narrative of a teenage boy learning significantly traumatic details of his life– Vedder saw the message to be very dark and heavy. The chorus– “Oh, well, I’m still alive” – was written with a negative connotation, as to display that the narrator was seeing his status of being alive as “a curse” and with the implication that not being alive seemed like a better alternative.
However, when fans heard this song, aided by a powerful musical track, they took a much different approach: rather than interpreting the narrator as helpless, they saw resilience. Instead of interpreting impossibility and dread, the line “Oh, well, I’m still alive” became an anthem for those who had experienced significant trauma and came out intact. Vedder’s proceeding observation shows that even the author of a song is still viable to benefit from the power of music:
"So cut to a few years later and we're playing to larger and larger audiences and they're responding to this chorus in a way that you never thought… folks are jumping up in the aisles, using their bodies to express themselves and singing along 'I'm still alive' en masse. So every night when I look out at this sea of people reacting on their own positive interpretation, it was really incredible. The audience changed the meaning of these words and when they sing 'I'm still alive' it's like they're celebrating.
And here's the thing. When they changed the meaning of those words, they lifted the curse."
WHAT’S COOKING FOR NEXT MONTH
Next month we will cover a mental phenomenon associated with many larger conditions known as rejection sensitivity and how it can be more (and less) influential than most may assume from the outside
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For more information on Connected Roots or Nick Serro, please visit our website or contact us at 720-593-1062.