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Listening to music changes the brain, sadtunes increase symptoms of depression

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By Prof Raphael Nyarkotey Obu

In one of Shatta Wale’s songs titled ‘On God’, the song tells the journey of how people can doubt you as a new entrant into an industry. It also recognized that no nobody is bigger than God. Indeed, after I listened to the song carefully in a barber salon, it inspired and became my favorite song. There are other musicians whose songs you listened to and inspired you. But what are the scientific benefits of music? I herein explore how music can improve our health and wellness.

The studies

Music connects us

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One study by Schäfer et al.(2013) found that one of the key significance of music is to create a kind of bonding and social connectedness. Rebecca Joy’s (2020) article affirmed that music remains a powerful way of uniting people:

o          national anthems connect crowds at sporting events

o          protest songs stir a sense of shared purpose during marches

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o          hymns build group identity in houses of worship

o          love songs help prospective partners bond during courtship

o          lullabies enable parents and infants to develop secure attachments

Music’s effects on the mind

Better learning

Doctors at Johns Hopkins suggest we should listen to music to stimulate the brain. This was found on MRI scans. For instance, a study by Gold et al.(2019)  found that just the promise of listening to music can make you want to learn more.

However, a study by Lehmann and Seufert(2017) found some limitations in listening to music. In this study, they tested students with lower working memory capacity and found that listening to music — especially songs with lyrics — sometimes had a negative effect on learning.

Improve memory

Bottiroli et al.(2007) asked the respondents to read and then recall short lists of words. They found that those respondents who listened to classical music did well as compared to those who studied in silence or with white noise.

The same study tracked how fast people could perform simple processing tasks — matching numbers to geometrical shapes — and a similar benefit showed up.

However, the Mayo Clinic explained that music doesn’t reverse the memory loss experienced by people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. However, Fang et al.(2017) study found music to slow cognitive decline, helping people with mild or moderate dementia remember episodes from their lives.

Rebecca(2020) explained that music memory is one of the brain functions most resistant to dementia. That’s why some caregivers have had success using music to calm dementia patients and build trusting connections with them.

Improves mental illness

Music changes the brain. One study by Mona Lisa Chanda and Daniel  Levitin(2013) found that listening to music triggers the release of several neurochemicals that play a role in brain function and mental health:

o          dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and “reward” centers

o          stress hormones like cortisol

o          serotonin and other hormones related to immunity

o          oxytocin, a chemical that fosters the ability to connect to others

Though researchers are exploring how music can treat mental illness, Msome et al.(2017)  suggest that music therapy can improve the quality of life and social connectedness for people with schizophrenia.

Music’s effects on mood

Schäfer et al.(2013) interviewed groups to explore the reasons why they listen to music. Though the respondents vary widely in terms of age, gender, and background, they report strikingly the same reasons.

Music can also help people regulate their emotions, Lonsdale and North’s (2011) study found. It has the power to change moods and help people process their feelings.

lower anxiety

There’s lots of evidence that listening to music can help calm you in situations where you might feel anxious.

Danseur et al.(2019) found that people in rehab after a stroke are more relaxed when they listen to music for an hour.

Another study, by Thoma et al.(2019) found that music mixed with nature sounds helps people feel less anxious. Even those going through critical illness feel less anxiety after music therapy.

Whether music therapy can affect our body’s physiological stress response appears to be demonstrated.  However,  Thoma et al.(2013) found that the body releases less cortisol, a stress hormone when people listen to music. This same study referenced previous research stating that music had little measurable effect on cortisol levels.

Also, Thoma et al.(2013)  measured numerous indicators of stress (not just cortisol) and found that listening to music before a stressful event doesn’t reduce anxiety, listening to relaxing music after a stressful event can help your nervous system recover faster.

Improves symptoms of depression

One review by Leubner and Hinterberger(2017) found that listening to music, especially classical combined with jazz, had a positive effect on depression symptoms, especially when there were several listening sessions conducted by board-certified music therapists.

Musical type important for depression

Stewart et al.(2019) study found that nostalgic sad tunes can increase symptoms of depression, especially if you tend to reflect or withdraw socially.

Music’s effects on the body

Heart health

Bernardi and Porta’s (2006) study found that listening to music supports breath rate, heart rate, and blood pressure, depending on the music’s intensity and tempo.


Bernardi et al.(2015) study found that relaxing music helped reduce fatigue and maintain muscle endurance in those who engaged in a repetitive task.

Alcântara-Silva et al.(2018) study found that music therapy sessions also decreased fatigue in patients receiving cancer treatments and raised the fatigue threshold for people engaged in difficult neuromuscular training, which leads us to the next big benefit.

Enhances exercise performance

Terry et al.(2020) confirm that a fitness session with music improves mood, helps the body exercise more efficiently, and cuts down on awareness of exertion. It also extends the period of the fitness session.

In clinical settings, Jarraya et al.(2012) found that athletes who listened to high-intensity, fast music during warmups were motivated to do better competitively.

Manage pain

A 2016 meta-analysis by Lee of over 90 studies reported that music helps people manage both acute and chronic pain better than medication alone. This is done by engaging an experienced trained music therapist.

Improves the health of premature babies

One randomized study by Loewy et al.(2013) in 272 premature infants aged ≥32 weeks found that it improves the health of premature babies. The study concluded that the therapeutic use of live sound and parent-preferred lullabies applied by a certified music therapist can influence cardiac and respiratory function.

Entrained with a premature infant’s observed vital signs, sound and lullaby may improve feeding behaviors and sucking patterns and may increase prolonged periods of quiet–alert states. Parent-preferred lullabies, sung live, can enhance bonding, thus decreasing the stress parents associate with premature infant care.

About music therapy 

The American Music Therapy Association describes music therapy as the use of music in hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehab clinics, nursing homes, schools, correctional facilities, and substance use programs to help meet the medical, physical, emotional, and cognitive needs of patients.

The person being treated partakes in the experience with a trained practitioner. Music therapy may involve:

o          listening to music

o          singing along to music

o          moving to the beat of the music

o          meditating

o          playing an instrument

Healing with sound is believed to date back to ancient Greece when music was used in an attempt to cure mental disorders. Throughout history, music has been used to boost morale in military troops, help people work faster and more productively, and even ward off evil spirits by chanting.

Types of sound or music therapy

There are a few different types of sound therapy, each with different benefits, though not all have been supported through research.

Guided meditation

Guided meditation is a form of sound healing in which you meditate to voice instruction, either in a session or class or using a video or app. Meditation can involve chanting or repeating mantras or prayers.

Neurologic music therapy

Jenny and Lee’s (2017) study found that a 30-minute music therapy session combined with traditional care after spinal surgery reduced pain.

Bonny Method

Named after Helen L. Bonny, PhD, the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music (GIM) classical music and imagery to help explore personal growth, consciousness, and transformation. One study by Cathy and Honig(2017) found promising evidence that a series of GIM sessions could enhance psychological and physiological health in adults with medical and mental health needs.


This sound healing method is delivered by skilled musicians who complete the Nordoff-Robbins 2-year master’s program. They use music familiar to those being treated, create new music together, or work toward a performance.

The Nordoff-Robbins approach is used to treat children with developmental delays (as well as their parents), mental health issues, learning difficulties, autism spectrum disorder, dementia, and other conditions.

Tuning fork therapy

Tuning fork therapy uses calibrated metal tuning forks to apply specific vibrations to different parts of the body. This can help release tension and energy, and promote emotional balance. It supposedly works similarly to acupuncture, using sound frequencies for point stimulation instead of needles.

One study by  Masala and Merolle(2017) found that tuning fork therapy may help relieve muscle and bone pain.

Brainwave entrainment

Also known as binaural beats, this method stimulates the brain into a specific state using pulsing sound to encourage your brain waves to align to the frequency of the beat. It’s supposed to help induce enhanced focus, entranced state, relaxation, and sleep.

One study by Huang and  Charyton(2008) found that audible brainwave entrainment reduces anxiety, pain, and symptoms of premenstrual syndrome, as well as improves behavioral problems in children.

How it works

According to Rebecca Joy(2020), music therapy uses different aspects of sound to improve your emotional and physical well-being. How it works depends on the method being used. Most music therapy sessions are experienced one-on-one with a specially trained practitioner.

A session may involve sitting or lying down while listening to music or sounds from a speaker or instruments or having vibrations applied using a special tool, such as a tuning fork. Depending on the method, you may be encouraged to participate by singing, moving, or even using a musical instrument, or you may need to remain still and quiet to let the sounds take effect.

Healing instruments

Along with voice, the following are some of the different instruments used in music therapy:

o          singing bowls

o          tuning forks

o          pan flute

o          harp

o          drums

Some methods use a variety of instruments in one session, which can include a guitar, piano, or other instrument.

The takeaway

Studies have demonstrated the many benefits of music as a therapy: boosts memory, builds task endurance, lightens mood, reduces anxiety and depression, staves off fatigue, improves response to pain, and helps work out more effectively. There is little risk in listening to music.

The writer is a professor of naturopathic healthcare, a medical journalist, an author, and a science writer. E. mail: [email protected].  Visit:  profnyarkotey.com

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