Music and Mental Health: A Critical Link

A pair of headphones on a bright yellow background

It’s no secret that music can have a profound impact on how we feel. The right song choice in our favorite movie can vividly cement a scene in our memory, and a song we listened to in high school can pull us right back to the throes of adolescence with just the opening riff.

So, it may seem obvious that music has benefits for our mental health. Many of us use music to boost our mood in the mornings, energize us during a run, or pump us up before a big event — and we can definitely attest to the positive feelings we get from listening to the right melody at the right time. But there is, in fact, a growing body of research to support that conclusion, too.

Music can help us to calm or regulate our emotions and get in touch with or express our feelings. It can even bring us closer — many people form strong relationships with others when they’re able to bond over a shared love of the same kind of music. Music therapy is even used to treat different mental health conditions like depression and trauma.

So, taking a closer look at exactly how music can impact our mood and mental health can help us to be more mindful of how we consume it. Plus, in learning to harness music’s benefits for ourselves, we can start thinking about how we might teach our kids how to do the same. 

How does music impact our emotions and mood?

Music can certainly improve our mood, but it can also allow us to connect more deeply with our emotions and process or express them — even ones that may be difficult or challenging to face.

A 2021 study conducted among fans of the South Korean boy band BTS asked 1,190 participants a series of open-ended questions about how they felt that the group’s music supported their mental health.

In the study, researchers Lee et al. found that many BTS listeners did find comfort or reassurance in BTS’s music or felt “grounded” and empowered to deal with challenges and daily stressors after listening. But researchers also reported that BTS’s music helped fans process emotions that they may have otherwise struggled to express. Instead of hiding from those feelings or being unable to put them or put them in words as they may have done in the past, BTS’s music acted for many participants as “a catalyst to unlock those feelings.” 

One study participant reported:

“The first time I listen [sic] to mono, I looked for a pen and wrote a poem — I haven’t written a poem in 2 years. Their songs make me feel alive. Their music is always here to tell me that I’m not alone.” 

And it’s not just creative inspiration that BTS fans are finding in their music — participants reported finding motivation to take real-world action towards personal growth.

“When I was afraid to go to counselling, [sic] yoongi’s interlude shadow motivated me because if he can share his fears with millions, I can share it with at least one person.”

So here’s one takeaway for you: your t(w)een’s current musical obsession — whether it’s a boy band icon or heavy metal star — may actually be bringing them some real mental health benefits.

But here’s another takeaway: music’s role in emotion regulation isn’t just about giving you a short-term mood boost.

Sometimes, we really do need an upbeat song to pull us out of a funk, but sometimes we might actually benefit from putting on a more somber tune and letting ourselves sit back and feel whatever comes up. In this way, music can help us to sit with a painful or challenging feeling for a while and develop a greater sense of where that feeling is coming from and what that feeling needs from us right now.

When reflection becomes rumination.

Playing music that matches your mood can be a useful tool for developing a deeper awareness of how you’re feeling, but it can sometimes keep you stuck in that headspace beyond what’s beneficial. 

For some people — especially people who may already lean on maladaptive coping strategies — music can be a way to ruminate on negative feelings instead of reflect. 

While it’s good to connect with and consider your feelings, rumination happens when you get stuck repeatedly obsessing over negative thoughts and emotions without a real end in sight. Rumination brings none of the same benefits to our mental health that reflection can; in fact, it does the exact opposite.

So, if that angsty playlist is actually keeping you down instead of helping you express and move past certain challenging feelings, it may be time to switch up your sound for a while. 

Using music mindfully.

Understanding that music can both positively and negatively impact our mood shows the importance of really tuning in (no pun intended) to observe and understand how music impacts you uniquely. 

Remember: ideas about music vary greatly both across and within cultures. You may understand what your society generally considers to be calming, for example (perhaps a classical piano song or a gentle lofi playlist comes to mind), but musical preference is very personal.

So if screamo is your wind-down music of choice, own it! What matters is becoming more aware of how what you listen to is actively impacting how you feel.

It may take some reflecting (to hear an LMFT walk you through a quick exercise in mindfulness & music listening, check out this video on our Instagram!), but once you’re more in touch with how music impacts your mood, you can really access its benefits.

In music therapy, practitioners sometimes use music to help actively shift people’s moods. This might look like playing a song that matches your current mood as a starting point, and slowly following up with music that can uplift your mood and bring you to a more positive state of mind.

In a blog post, Dr. Suzanne Hanzer, a music therapy professor at Berklee College, described one activity that you can try out on your own to create a “Mood Manager Playlist” (based on what’s known as the “iso principle” in music therapy). 

Step 1: if you’re feeling down or having trouble shaking off a bad mood, instead of throwing on something upbeat to try and fight off those feelings, try and find some music that matches your mood — whether it’s the melody, rhythm, or lyrics that really connect with you. This selection will start out your playlist.

Echoing the research highlighted earlier about the tendency for some people to use music to ruminate, here Dr. Hanzer issues a word of warning about our tendency to “wallow in music that matches [our] loneliness, sadness, or nervousness,” noting that “you don’t want to stay there too long.” 

Which brings us to the next step: finding music that showcases how you want to feel. Maybe you’re looking to soothe some tension or have a more positive outlook. Find a song (or a couple) that really embodies those feelings. These songs will be the final selections of your playlist.

Now, seek out some music that takes you from point A to point B to fill out the middle of your playlist. Try to find songs that help you transition from your current mood song to your ideal mood song. Then, by listening to your playlist, your mood should shift and flow as the music’s mood does, too. 

In Dr. Hanzer’s article,  you can also find inspiration in a couple of example playlists created by music therapists with titles like “Sluggish to Energized” or “Lonely to Connected.” 

How can music therapy help me or my child?

Music therapy is an evidence-based clinical practice that has demonstrated success with grown-ups and kids alike. Music therapy can involve different exercises centered around listening to music (similar to the activity we outlined above!), but it might also involve activities like lyric analysis or playing music together with a coordinated group. 

If you or your child are coping with a mental health concern and are curious about music therapy, try checking out the American Music Therapy Association to find a board certified or licensed music therapist in your area.

And for more information about how to talk to kids about mental health, check out the maro parents app!

Photo by C D-X on Unsplash.

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