In 2009, archaeologists excavating a cave in southern Germany uncovered a flute carved from a vulture’s wing bone. The delicate artifact is the oldest known musical instrument on earth — indicating that people have been making music for over 40,000 years. Although we can’t be sure exactly when human beings began listening to music, scientists do know something about why we do. Listening to music benefits us individually and collectively. Here’s what research tells us about the power of music to improve our physical, mental, and emotional health.
According to Kendra Cherry at VeryWellMind, listening to music can be entertaining, and some research suggests that it might even make you healthier. Music can be a source of pleasure and contentment, but there are many other psychological benefits as well. Music can improve the mind’s relaxation, energize the body, and even help people better manage pain. The notion that music can influence your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors probably do not come as much of a surprise. If you’ve ever felt pumped up while listening to your favorite fast-paced rock anthem or been moved to tears by a tender live performance, then you easily understand the power of music to impact moods and even inspire action. The psychological effects of music can be powerful and wide-ranging. Music therapy is an intervention sometimes used to promote emotional health, help patients cope with stress, and boost psychological well-being. Some research even suggests that your taste in music can provide insight into different aspects of your personality.
Music Can Improve Cognitive Performance
Research suggests that background music, or music that is played while the listener is primarily focused on another activity, can improve performance on cognitive tasks in older adults. One study found that playing more upbeat music led to improvements in processing speed, while both upbeat and downbeat music led to benefits in memory. So the next time you are working on a task, consider turning on a little music in the background if you are looking for a boost in your mental performance. Consider choosing instrumental tracks rather than those with complex lyrics, which might end up being more distracting.
Music Can Reduce Stress
It has long been suggested that music can improve stress management. Consider the trend centered on meditative music created to soothe the mind and induce relaxation. Fortunately, this is one trend supported by research. Listening to music can be an effective way to cope with stress. In one 2013 study, participants took part in one of three conditions before being exposed to a stressor and then taking a psychosocial stress test. Some participants listened to relaxing music, others listened to the sound of rippling water, and the rest received no auditory stimulation. The results suggested that listening to music had an impact on the human stress response, particularly the autonomic nervous system. Those who had listened to music tended to recover more quickly following a stressor.
Music Can Help You Eat Less
One of the most surprising psychological benefits of music is that it might be a helpful weight-loss tool. If you are trying to lose weight, listening to mellow music and dimming the lights might help you achieve your goals. The researchers suggest that music and lighting help create a more relaxed setting. Since the participants were more relaxed and comfortable, they may have consumed their food more slowly and have been more aware of when they began to feel full. You might try putting this into practice by playing soft music at home while you eat dinner. By creating a relaxing setting, you may be more likely to eat slowly and, therefore, feel fuller sooner.
Music Can Improve Your Memory
Lots of students enjoy listening to music while they study, but is that such a great idea? Some feel like listening to their favorite music as they study improves memory, while others contend that it simply serves as a pleasant distraction. Research suggests that it may help. But it depends upon a variety of factors, including the type of music, the listener’s enjoyment of that music, and even how musically well-trained the listener may be. In one study, musically naive students learned better when listening to positive music, possibly because these songs elicited more positive emotions without interfering with memory formation. However, musically trained students tended to perform better on learning tests when they listened to neutral music, possibly because this type of music was less distracting and easier to ignore. If you tend to find yourself distracted by music, you may be better off learning in silence or with neutral tracks playing in the background.
Music Can Help Manage Pain
Research has shown that music can improve pain management. One study of fibromyalgia patients found that those who listened to music for just one hour a day experienced a significant reduction in pain compared to those in a control group. At the end of the four-week study period, participants who had listened to music each day experienced significant reductions in feelings of pain and depression. Such results suggest that music therapy could be an important tool in the treatment of chronic pain. While listening to music at any point in time was effective, the researchers noted that listening to music pre-surgery resulted in better outcomes. The review looked at data from more than 7,000 patients and found that music listeners also required less medication to manage their pain. There was also a slightly greater, though not statistically significant, improvement in pain management results when patients were allowed to select their own music.
Music May Help You Sleep Better
Insomnia is a serious problem that affects people of all age groups. While there are many approaches to treating this problem, research has demonstrated that listening to relaxing classical music can be a safe, effective, and affordable remedy. In a study looking at college students, participants listened to classical music, an audiobook, or nothing at all at bedtime for three weeks. Researchers assessed sleep quality both before and after the intervention.
Music Can Improve Motivation
There is a good reason why you find it easier to exercise while you listen to music. Researchers have found that listening to fast-paced music motivates people to work out harder. One experiment designed to investigate this effect tasked 12 healthy male students with cycling on a stationary bike at self-paced speeds. On three different trials, the participants biked for 25 minutes at a time while listening to a playlist of six different popular songs of various tempos. Unknown to the listeners, the researchers made subtle differences to the music and then measured performance. The music was left at a normal speed, increased by 10%, or decreased by 10%. Speeding up the tracks resulted in increased performance in terms of distance covered, the speed of pedaling, and power exerted. Conversely, slowing down the music’s tempo led to decreases in all of these variables. So if you are trying to stick to a workout routine, consider loading up a playlist filled with fast-paced tunes that will help boost your motivation and enjoyment of your exercise regimen.
Music Can Improve Mood
Another of the science-backed benefits of music is that it just might make you happier. In one examination of the reasons why people listen to music, researchers discovered that music played an important role in relating arousal and mood. Participants rated music’s ability to help them achieve a better mood and become more self-aware as two of the most important functions of music. Another study found that intentionally trying to boost moods by listening to positive music could have an impact within two weeks. Participants were instructed to purposefully attempt to improve their mood by listening to positive music each day for two weeks. Other participants listened to music but were not directed to become happier intentionally. When participants were later asked to describe their own levels of happiness, those who had intentionally tried to improve their moods reported feeling happier after just two weeks.
Music May Reduce Symptoms of Depression
Researchers have also found that music therapy can be a safe and effective treatment for a variety of disorders, including depression. One study found that music therapy was a safe, low-risk way to reduce depression and anxiety in patients suffering from neurological conditions such as dementia, stroke, and Parkinson’s disease. While music can certainly have an impact on mood, the type of music is also important. Classical and meditation music offers the greatest mood-boosting benefits, while heavy metal and techno music are ineffective and even detrimental.
Music Can Improve Endurance and Performance
Another important psychological benefit of music lies in its ability to boost performance. While people have a preferred step frequency when walking and running, scientists have discovered that the addition of a strong, rhythmic beat, such as a fast-paced musical track, could inspire people to pick up the pace. Runners are not only able to run faster while listening to music; they also feel more motivated to stick with it and display greater endurance. The ideal tempo for workout music is somewhere between 125 and 140 beats per minute. So why does music boost workout performance? Listening to music while working out lowers a person’s perception of exertion. You’re working harder, but it doesn’t seem like you’re putting forth more effort. Because your attention is diverted by the music, you are less likely to notice the obvious signs of exertion such as increased respiration, sweating, and muscle soreness.
In summary, music can inspire and entertain, but it also has powerful psychological effects that can improve your health and well-being. Instead of thinking of music as pure entertainment, consider some of the major mental benefits of incorporating music into your everyday life. You might find that you feel more motivated, happy, and relaxed as a result.
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This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.