How Music Can Improve Your Mental Health

By Alexandra Frost

Since her grandfather died five years ago, Casey Clark doesn’t go a day without listening to music. It helps her cope with the grief, depression, and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from seeing him in the hospital before he passed. When her symptoms flare, she listens to a Michael Bublé album because it was the last present she gave her grandfather, and they shared many happy memories listening to it together.

“It sounds cliché, but music actually serves as an escape in those moments when the flashbacks are so intense, and I can’t get out of them with other grounding techniques,” says Clark, 22, a writer who lives in New York City.

The teen and young adult years have long been known as the most pivotal in developing a personal taste in music, and for many, it’s the time that music matters the most. The average teen spends 2.5 hours per day listening to music, and over half of young adults, ages 18 to 29, report streaming music every day (compared to 24% of all adults). 

This is good news, because music can be a great way to take care of your mental health.

Music Can Be Distracting and Lower Your Stress

Research suggests that listening to music may lessen the impact of depression and anxiety. A 2019 study found that college students who listened to classical music every day for two months had significantly lower levels of anxiety.

Another 2016 study looked at the connection between music and anxiety by studying people who have a fear of heights. Participants were put in a virtual reality simulation of riding up nine floors in an elevator. One group listened to music during the experiment, and the other didn’t. The researchers found that those who listened to music recovered faster from the stress of the experience than those who didn’t. And many studies suggest that listening to music can lower stress hormones as well as blood pressure and heart rate (both spike when you’re stressed).

When you want music to give you a break from what you’re going through, pick songs that have a storyline different from the challenges you’re facing, recommends Bethany Cook, PsyD, a psychologist and music therapist in Chicago. This can temporarily transport you elsewhere and give you a short break from your concerns, just like when you read a good book.

Music Can Help You Feel Your Feelings

When her clients are in a bad mood, feeling weird or off, or managing difficult emotions, Cook recommends putting on a piece of classical music. “Listening to music that does not have lyrics attached to it lets the listener project their personal feelings and their personal struggle into the music,” she says. And some research has found that even listening to “sad” music can make you feel some pleasant emotions, which might lessen the pain you are feeling or allow you to more safely feel sad feelings we sometimes try to avoid in life.

Music Can Make it Easier to Talk About What’s Bothering You

If you don’t have the words to explain what you’re going through, or if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, song lyrics provide another way to express yourself. Lyrics give you permission to better understand your own situation through someone else’s perspective, Cook says. She uses something called “lyric analysis” when she works with kids and teens in group therapy settings. You can try it alone or with a friend or loved one. Here’s how: 

  • Bring up the lyrics on your phone(s)
  • Listen to the song
  • Mark or highlight words and sentences that stand out to you
  • Listen to the song again, pausing at the marked places, and discuss or think about why those lyrics spoke to you and how you relate to them
  • Listen a final time reflecting on your new appreciation of what the song means to you or your friends

Music Can Help You Figure Out Who You Are

Discovering music that resonates is one key way teens and young adults define who they are and who they want to be, says Michael Viega, PhD, a professor of music therapy at Montclair State University in Montclair, New Jersey. Both Viega and Cook strongly encourage parents, teachers, and caregivers to approach teens’ and young adults’ music with curiosity. 

Showing interest in musical taste is a way to show an interest in who a young person is or is becoming. Even listening to music with questionable lyrics is an “opportunity,” says Viega. It gives caregivers a chance to open a dialogue, asking teens what they think is happening in the song. Doing so can lead to meaningful conversations about important topics that can be difficult to talk about, says Viega. 

“Music first turned me on to drag culture and the queer community when I was a teenager,” says Viega. “It turned me on to feminist ideals, to ecology and ecological thinking.” 

Music Builds Community

Making music — through singing or playing an instrument in school, in a band, or with friends — can connect you with a community of people who share a common interest. And even if you don’t play or sing, you can also find people who share your love for a particular band or type of music. Feeling a sense of belonging to something larger than yourself is a proven way to improve mental health.

Music Can Be a Quick Mood Booster

Research has found that listening to upbeat music with the intention of getting in a better mood actually works. You might not even need the research to believe this, as you might already experience this yourself.

Music Can Benefit People Who Are Deaf or Have Hearing Loss

Research into music therapy for people who are deaf and also have mental health disorders is more limited, but case studies suggest, just as in hearing people, music can help people with hearing loss express emotions and improve cognitive abilities. Cook uses table drums to connect with her deaf cousin. “Table drums are massive, and you can lie underneath them and all of that sound vibration goes straight into your body,” Cook says. Playing them with her cousin has increased their connection and nonverbal communication.

How to Use Music to Feel Better

If you would like to explore using music to help you feel better, Cook and Viega recommend:

  • Sampling different types of music to expand your horizons and find what you like
  • Using music as a stress reliever when you are feeling anxious
  • Discussing meaningful song lyrics with a friend
  • Trying an instrument
  • Talking about why you love a particular song with the adults in your life (or, if you’re a caregiver, with your teen)
  • Listening to classical music when you have confusing or difficult emotions
  • Creating playlists to match or inspire different moods

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