Music Psychology and Mental Health
16th October 2023
16th October 2023
Music Psychology and Mental Health page edited by Henrietta Atkins, M.M. Ms. Atkins is an active professional musician and composer with a graduate degree in Composition.
Introduction: Music Psychology and the Emotional Power of Music
Musician Stevie Wonder has said that "music is a world within itself, with a language we all understand." Music is a language, with or without words, serving as a medium for people from all walks of life to express their deepest thoughts and emotions. In fact, author Leo Tolstoy has described music as "the shorthand of emotion".
Of course, the musical experience goes beyond simply listening to it; as an exercise in creativity and as a social activity, music involves considerable emotional and cognitive investment, whether it be composing music or performing it. Despite its widespread presence and importance in many cultures, music's effects on the human mind are only just beginning to be understood.
The search for answers into music’s impact on the human mind has attracted scholars and researchers from a wide array of disciplines, including computer science, musicology, anthropology, and psychology. From its effects on depression and social attitudes, to research on its benefits in education, music psychology is an exciting exploration of the magic that is music, and its influence on the mystery that is the human mind.
With or without lyrics, music conveys a message, an emotional message that reaches down into our heart, stirring the deepest feelings and emotions.
Above: Copy of Jakobus Stainer, 18th century. Photo: Frinck
Given that there are 27 definitions of music in the dictionary, for the purposes of this site, music is defined as "a rhythmic, melodic, or harmonic grouping of sounds" composed in such a way that it forms a unified whole "so as to convey a message, to communicate, or to entertain." (OnMusic Dictionary)
Music can also be described as "vocal or instrumental sound", (or a combination of the two), which are combined so as to "produce beauty of form, harmony, and expression of emotion." (based on Oxford Dictionaries).
Applications of Music Psychology
Music psychology examines the psychological processes underlying activities such as playing, listening to, and composing music.
Research by psychologists, neuroscientists, linguists, educators, and computer scientists has confirmed the many possibilities of this relatively young scientific discipline. In fact, research now conclusively shows that music can benefit both individuals and societies in numerous ways. Currently, music is being used therapeutically in modalities including:
· Music-based therapies for autism and other pervasive development disorders.
· Music- based therapies for dementia and Alzheimer's, depression and bipolar disorder, and sleep disorders and memory impairment.
· Parenting and social activities that foster prosocial behavior.
· Extracurricular activities such as music lessons, which foster better academic performance in students.
· Activities that foster infant brain development.
· Music has also been shown to influence consumer buying, and this aspect of music psychology is of much interest to marketing professionals.
Sociological Aspects of Music Psychology
Human beings are not meant to live in isolation. Our complex mammalian nature, along with a host of other emotional, physical and spiritual drives, cause us to form groups. The smallest social unit is the family, which spawns larger groups, communities, and finally nations. Human beings crave connection with others.
Given the amazing ability of music to express the complex emotions of human beings, it is not surprising that music plays an important role in the creation and maintenance of social groups and subcultures. Throughout history, people with common goals, ideas and belief have bonded together, and the music of this subculture is an important rallying point for them, and often expresses their beliefs.
Examples are too numerous to mention, but the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s inspired many anthems of freedom that will be forever associated with it, such as "We Shall Overcome" and "Blowing in the Wind". The hippie movement of that same decade revivified interest in folk music, as young people harkened back to a more innocent time, and the intense grooves and loudness of rock 'n' roll music echoed a younger generation’s desire to be heard and seen.
Moving into the 80s, Punk rock was widely seen as a reaction to the unemployment in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain, and rebellion against her conservative policies. "London Calling" by the Clash is one example of Punk’s indictment of urban decay. Goth is another example of subculture that largely coalesces around a sub-genre of music.
Prior to the punk (rock) scene in London , The Who's Pete Townsend describes his identifying with what he refers to as two-million "mods", with similar hair styles, clothing, along with the binding hard rock music and energetic no-restraints dancing as a binding glue (Rolling Stone. 2015).
Inset: Psychedelic rock music was an integral part of the Haight-Ashbury subculture in San Francisco (1967).
Punk rock music was both a catalyst for, and inspired the punk rock style of dress, including hairstyle. (Punk photo from The Guardian musicblog. September 1, 2008)
On gothic subculture: "Gothic... Elements of punk, glam rock and new romantic, were gradually fused into a distinctive style of music and fashion...described as 'dark'..." Hodkinson (2002).
Music's Effect on Emotions, Mood, Mood Disorders, Transmitting Ideas and Ideals
Research has shown that music has a very strong influence on moods and emotions. Music can certainly change our current emotional state, create different trains of thought, and even convey ideas to its listeners. This is true for people of all ages and walks of life.
Our moods are deeply affected by the type, intensity and amount of music we listen to. People with volatile temperaments often become calmer after listening to relaxing music. Conversely, more phlegmatic people can be energized by upbeat music. For example, pop music is used in exercise classes to maintain energy flow and interest. The motivational force of influence of music on mood cannot be overstated.
Music can also make us sad, or even depressed. Depending on the emotional state of the listener or composer, music can even be a negative influence. It is interesting to note that many famous composers showed an enormous range of emotions. The composer Ludwig Van Beethoven was known to pound the piano so passionately that he broke its strings! Genius personalities such as Beethoven often show intense emotional sensitivity, and one might speculate that this great emotional range is needed to compose great music.
The correlation between creativity and bipolar disorder (artists, musicians, and writers being more likely to have bipolar disorder) is a further illustration of the fascinating link between music and human emotions. We internalize what we listen to, allowing the emotions of the composer and the musicians to become our own, thus establishing a connection with the composer and performers.
Both the lyrics and the music itself are involved in this bonding process. The more we listen to a piece, the more we begin to internalize and identify with it.
As this process of listening to and identifying with the music develops, we may even develop a spiritual connection, bonding, or identity with the ideas, moods, or personas, of the music being transmitted, the social groups they represent, or the musicians and what they stand for. Music is known for bridging gaps and creating bonds between people who might otherwise have little in common. It can convey a message of peace and brotherhood.
Music has also been used as a medium for some less-than-noble purposes. For example, music has often been used to rally people during wartime. The horror of war has been rendered more palatable when led by beautiful national anthems and trumpet fanfares. In fact, "The Star Spangled Banner," the national anthem of the United States, was written by Francis Scott Key during the war of 1812. The Marsellaise, the national anthem of France, urges its citizens to arms, as do many other national anthems.
Since music touches emotions, it has the propensity to make ideas which might be otherwise discordant with one’s own value and belief system easier to digest. The horror of the Holocaust was helped along by the operas of Richard Wagner (pronounced "Vagner"), which were exploited by Adolf Hitler to inspire German nationalism and militarism. The operas were based on ancient myths that spoke of a heroic Teutonic people who were superior to other races.
Because parents are not always aware of the lyrics embedded in the music their children listen to, they should carefully monitor both the type of music as well as the lyrics of the music of their children's daily repertoire. Music lessons are a good way to expose children to instrumental music.
The Many Facets of the Psychology of Music -- Disciplines and Research
Research in music psychology is approached in a variety of angles The discipline is relatively new, and the scientific methods used are multifaceted and evolve adeptly. Currently, researchers use empirical, theoretical, and computational methods to examine:
· Psychological process in listening to music
· Psychological process in performing and improvising music
· Composing music and its psychological roots
Topics explored include:
· Human perception and cognition of music
· Computer modeling of musical capacities in musicians and listeners
· Music and social psychology
· The link between emotion and music
· Music therapy, and its impact on psychological processes
· Music pathology
· music therapy and its positive use in speech language pathology (American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA))
· Music therapy and its impact on addiction
· A developmental approach towards music psychology
In additional, researchers examine the links between:
· Music and consciousness
· Music and embodiment
· Music and neuroscience
· Music and its influence on different pathologies
The multidisciplinary aspect of music psychology (Hodges, D. 2003): involves exploration and research in such fields as the:
· Anthropology of music
· Sociology of music
· Biology of music
· Physics of music
· Philosophy of music
· Listening to music
· Playing music
· Composing or improvising music, and
· Using empirical, theoretical and computational methods in interpreting as well as producing music
The Elements of Music
As previously mentioned, music is a deeply engaging emotional experience that affects a large cross-section of the population. Whether it's a massive symphony that brings one to tears, or a nostalgic song that speaks of a happy summer; whether it rocks you to sleep or inspires you to travel, music strongly influences human emotion as well as behavior.
But how does music elicit these effects and make us feel the way we do? In order to understand the psychological impact of music, we must examine the elements of music itself.
Rhythm: Rhythm is the temporal aspect of music and that organizes a piece into repeated patterns. The San Francisco Symphony states that you can find rhythm almost anywhere, in a player dribbling a basketball, a washing machine, raindrops falling, or a runner in the street. Rhythm is what makes "music move and flow".
Rhythm consists of patterns of sounds and silences, producing the beat, and a composer might use numerous rhythms in one piece.
Beat and Meter: Closely related to rhythm is beat and meter. Beats are the fundamental building blocks of rhythm, the basic pulse of music, and are grouped together in measures. When you are tap your foot when listening to music, you are responding to the steady beat.
Meter is the organization of strong and weak beat patterns that give rise to rhythm. The meter of a piece is indicated by its time signature. Most of today’s music is written in 4/4 meter (or 4/4 time); the top (numerator) 4 refers to the number of beats in the measure, the bottom (denominator) 4 refers to the note (1/4 or quarter note) that gets one beat. As another example, a waltz is written in 3/4 time, with 3 beats to a measure rather than 4. Some meters are more complex, and the meter can change throughout a single piece in more-complex musical arrangements.
Pitch: Pitch is the property that organizes sounds along a frequency-based scale; it is the quality that determines if a note sounds high or low. The frequency of sound wave vibrations determines each pitch. The accepted standard for tuning the majority of musical instruments is that the note A4 (the A above middle C), which equals a pitch value of 440Hz, or 440 cycles per second.
Melody: Melody can be described as a sequence of notes that is musically satisfying; thus the definition of melody is quite subjective, depending on the listener. Composer Leonard Bernstein describes melody as "a series of notes that move along in time, one after another."
Harmony: Harmony is the combination of simultaneously sounded musical notes to produce chords and chord progressions that have a pleasing effect. As with melody, harmony is ever evolving, and composers constantly create new types of harmony.
Developments in compositional harmony throughout history gave rise to the baroque, classic and romantic movements in music. In the article, "Why Harmony Pleases the Brain", the author states that harmonic notes can be played at the same time as the melody, as well as behind, beneath, or around it, supporting the melody and providing "texture and mood".
Circle of Fifths: In music theory, the circle of fifths is a handy concept that orders 12 tones of the chromatic scale by fifths. For example, the key of G, which is a fifth above C major, has one sharp. The key of D, which is a fifth above G, has two sharps. The key of A, which is a fifth above D, has three sharps. Learning about the circle of fifths facilitates better musicianship with applications to composing and modulating between keys. In many compositions, chord progressions move by fifths, because of the special acoustic relationships between the dominant chord and the tonic chord which are a fifth apart.
Scale: An ordered collection of pitches is called a scale. Much of Western music is based on the major scale, which is a group of eight pitches. In a major scale, each pitch is a whole step apart , except between scale degrees 3 and 4 and 7 and 8, when each pitch is a half step apart. Other scales in Western music, such as minor or pentatonic scales, are different arrangements of half and whole steps. Some cultures base their musical scales on pitches a quarter tone apart; Indian "ragas" are examples of these types of scales.
Texture: Texture in music refers to how the melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic materials are combined in a composition, determining the overall quality of the sound in a piece.
Timbre: The quality or "color" of a musical sound, disregarding pitch, describes its timbre. For example, in an orchestra there are many timbres of sounds because each instrument produces a different color and type of sound. Professor David Meckler refers describes different musical timbres as "bright, dark, brassy, reedy, harsh, noisy, thin, buzzy, pure, raspy, shrill, mellow, strained". Even the same instrument played by different musicians can produce a different timbre.
Key: In music theory, the key of a piece is based on its tonic, or primary, note and chord. For example, a piece based around the note C is in the key of C major. The piece usually begins and ends with its tonic note and chord, which gives a subjective sense of arrival and rest.
Other notes in the piece contrast with the tonic note, which builds various levels of tension and dissonance through the piece, until the piece ends on its tonic note, which creates a subject sense of arrival and rest. There are both major ("happy") and minor ("sad") keys in music.
Consonance and Dissonance: Consonant intervals (such as thirds and sixths) tend to create sense of coherence, pleasantness, or rest in music. Dissonant intervals (such as tritones, sevenths and seconds) create tension, and ask to be resolved back to consonant intervals. Once again, the experience of consonance and dissonance in music is subjective. For example, what would be considered dissonant in classical music from the 18th century, may be considered to be consonant in the context of modern jazz.
The Benefits of Music and Music Education for Teens and Children
As such, music is used by educators today in a number of ways to enhance the learning environment of the classroom. This can be especially pertinent in view of the fact that music reaches emotions of the listener.
Many teachers use soft calming music is to help preschool and kindergarten children to relax at nap time and other times of the day. Some high schools pipe soothing classical music through their sound system to create a calm atmosphere in the hallways. One high school English teacher in an urban Newark, New Jersey high school plays soft music in the background while her students quietly work, a sharp contrast to the pervasive rap and hip-hop that dominates the urban music scene.
Actually studying a musical instrument has been shown to have a very positive influence on a child's cognitive abilities. Cognitive faculties such as the ability to memorize are enhanced by learning how to play an instrument. It is now generally accepted that learning an instrument broadens one’s ability to understand math and science, which is demonstrated by the fact that many mathematicians and scientists studied music when they were children, and still enjoy it as a hobby. Language, math, and music are processed in the same area of the brain.
Active participation in playing music and music appreciation has been shown to increase self-esteem. For example, one teenager with ADHD said that she had difficulty connecting with other teenagers in school. Learning to play piano during her teenage years filled many vacant hours, staved off boredom, and also contributed to her self-confidence, which sometimes can be damaged when a teenager is diagnosed with a learning disability or mental disorder such ADHD.
Some benefits of positive music for children and teens may include:
· Higher Test Scores and Cognitive Devevelopment; Higher SAT scores
· Music teachers can be positive role models
· Learning to play a music instrument helps teens to develop self esteem
Teachers, parents and mentors can help children and teenagers to benefit by from exposure to a wide variety of music. The tendency, of course, is for teens to gravitate towards what is currently popular on the radio.
By learning to enjoy a diversity of musical genres, a child or teenager can get a better perspective on cultural history, and where the music of today fits into the broader historical picture of music throughout the centuries, and find enjoyment in a diversified offering of music and cultures.
Read more on music in schools, teens and children
Music and the Elderly
Recent research has indicated that listening to music helps older people to express their emotions. Cognitive abilities that tend to decline as we age can also be enhanced by music. One study showed that older people in nursing homes increased their quality of life when given iPods that were filled with their favorite music. Some even found their memories and physical abilities improved.
The study of brain chemistry and how our emotions are chemically created is of great interest to the field of music psychology. It may well be that the production of chemicals such as dopamine (one chemical in our brains synapses that provides a sense of well-being and that is released during periods or in response to excitement) can be electro-chemically induced by listening to music.
The Birth of Rock and Roll Rock 'n Roll music evolved from jazz, the blues, boogie woogie, and folk music of the 1940s and 1950s, as well as from prior decades. 1953 marked the birth of rock music, with Bo Diddley's new beat featured in the song Who Do You Love. Drug culture and teen rebellion soon became an integral part of this new form of music.
Poetry therapy results in many positive benefits for adults and youth, not the least of which is a positive lyrical/musical outlet for emotions. Writing poetry can be cathartic. Reading poetry can be soothing and healing. "Poetry jams" in urban high schools give youth an opportunity to creatively express themselves, and to give them a "voice" to be heard--writing poetry is an active rather than passive activity.
Is listening to pop music linked with major depression in teens? - See: Teen Depression - Association Between Media Use in Adolescence and Major Depression, Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), in Young Adulthood
Listening to music excessively is correlational with teen depression, according to one study. While there may not be a direct causes and effect relationship, parents are cautioned to keep tabs on their children and teens’ music habits. Media overstimulation in general may play a role in mood or the mental development of teens and children. Music is one aspect related the overstimulation of the mind through media, or social isolation that may result from listening to music excessively.
Different individuals are predisposed to a different level of focus, sensitivity, and tolerances for the amount and type of music their brain can process or handle without interfering with normal functioning. Since many of today's youth often spend hours daily listening to music from a variety of sources, in addition to input from other media sources, it helps us shed light on the impact that music might have in terms of the mental health of children and on adolescent mood disorders, as this study suggests.
Joel Robertson, Ph.D., documents the impact both in a positive and detrimental way that music can have on mental health in areas such as depression, in his book Natural Prozac. Controlling the content and amount of music that we choose to listen to are positive ways to self-regulate, in the context of Robertson's work, to minimize propensity towards depression and maximize a sense of well-being.
Hearing, the Mechanics of the Ear, and Neurophysiology
A brain cell transmits an electrical current through the axon to the dendrite, skips the synapse gap chemically by means of neurotransmitters to the next brain cell, and repeats the process millions of times when processing an idea or thought.
Whether music is performed with electric or acoustic instruments, when it reaches the ear, it is transformed through the components of the eardrum through the hearing nerve into electrical signals, and then electro-chemical signals, when it passes into the brain, and processed by the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe (Purves, Augustine, Fitzpatrick). Emotion is also processed, in part, by means of the amygdala, a small almond-shaped part of the brain within the temporal lobe.
Thoughts and subsequently moods journey through a path of brain neurons (nerve cells) both chemically in the synapses, and electrically in the neurons.Thoughts, including music, that we hear over and over creates pathways through our brain’s neurons and become part of our permanent memory.
The path taken by thoughts in the brain are in the form of electrical impulses through the brain's neurons, and are transformed into chemical impulses across the gaps of the synapses. This path continues through millions and millions of neurons, in forming thoughts and memories, both musical or otherwise, which become imbedded in our mind, especially through repetition.
Research from Georgetown University reveals that the brain system processes both language and music in the same two areas. Language and music are processed in the auditory cortex of the temporal lobes, located beneath the frontal lobe and above the brain stem and cerebellum.
Both meanings of words and phrases in language are processed in the temporal lobes, as well as that of familiar musical melodies. Within the frontal lobes, the rules of both language, such as syntax of sentences, and the rules of the elements of music, such as harmony, are processed and memorized. The Georgetown study is published in the journal NeuroImage.
That today's music largely begins with electrical instruments, or is in some way communicated electrically before it reaches our ears, that what is heard through the ears is transformed into electrical impulses in the nerve cells, and that when the electrically translated sounds pulsate through the brain's neurons electrically, is an intriguing thought.
The largest part of the music-mechanical-mental journey is an electrical one, with neurotransmitters between the synapses as mere deliverers of these electrical messages. Perhaps in future research, more emphasis will be placed on restoring the electrical balance of the mind rather than the chemical balance when considering matters related to mental health.
A tremendous amount of research money and effort goes into developing medicines that affects brain chemistry, or for justifying the use of existing medicines for mental health disorders other than which they were originally developed for.
What if we invested as much time and effort into researching the positive effects of therapies such use how music, and along with it art, can be used as therapeutic tools to positively affect the electrical thought process of the brain. Could positive therapies such as music and art be a step towards relief from some of the symptoms of anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, ADHD, and contribute a better night’s sleep?
Music therapy is used therapeutically in a number of settings, and is an evidence-based clinical practice.
Although music can be used as a self-help tool, the term music therapy is used specifically in a clinical setting. Music therapists in the United States hold a MT-BC credential, which is issued by the Certification Board for Music Therapists. It is a specific medical discipline that helps patients or clients achieve specific goals within a therapeutic context.
One use of music therapy is in coping with anxieties, depression, or other mental health issues or emotional needs. Catherine Ulbricht, co-founder of the National Standard Research Collaboration group, states that "classical music has been found to cause comfort and relaxation while rock music may lead to discomfort."
Ulbricht, who is a pharmacist, encourages the "least invasive route to feeling your best as possible." She recommends using "stress-preventing measure[s], pursuing positive dietary changes, an exercise program", or therapies such as "music therapy", rather than running to the doctor for a "magic, feel-good pill."
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) outlines numerous avenues for the use of music therapy including:
· music therapy in physical rehabilitation
· to facilitate physical movement
· to increase people's motivation to better engage with other forms of treatment
· music as emotional support for both clients and their families
· music to facilitate emotional expression
Conclusion of Music Psychology
Music transmits ideas and emotions from individual to individual as well as to masses of people through mass media. Music is a product of culture, but also influences culture with a tremendous potential to influence millions of minds on many levels, including mentally, emotionally, and even chemically. Music can be used positively both on a personal level, in education and in professional music therapy.
Along with that, educators, professionals, and parents, need to be aware of the need to guide and educate children and youth in wise choices in listening to music, a powerful influence on emotion and behavior.
References for Music Psychology page:
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2. Catterall, James S., Richard Chapleau, and John Iwanaga. "Involvement in the Arts and Human Development: General Involvement and Intensive Involvement in Music and Theater Arts." Los Angeles, CA: The Imagination Project at UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, 1999. NELS:88, National Education Longitudinal Survey)
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Tunes and Talk: Researchers Find Music and Language are Processed by the Same Brain Systems. (2007, September 27). Explore Georgetown Education. http://explore.georgetown.edu/news/?ID=27776
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