• Linda Tajalli

Music and Mental Health

Can you think of the last full day you’ve gone without listening to a single piece of music?


Trick question.


Think about it. Aside from your favorite playlists, music is oftentimes in the background of advertisements and videos. (What is a documentary without the dramatic orchestral music playing in the background?)


Unless you’ve practically disconnected yourself from most forms of media and lived in the quietest spot on Earth, chances are you encounter music on a daily basis.


Why is it that we enjoy, or maybe even dislike, listening to oldies and pop rock? Or rather, why what you think is music may be perceived as loud noise to the person standing next to you—or should I say, 6 feet from you?


Interested in seeing this difference for myself, I went sleuthing. Unfortunately, as with most interesting things in life, the answer isn’t necessarily clear-cut.


First, why do we feel good when listening to music? While it may not be immediately involved in our survival— no records of people performing opera to materialize food or shelter out of thin air exist, yet—one study found that it’s our perception that influences why we find the act of listening to music so pleasurable; this perception is highly variable and unique amongst us.


Another interesting study investigated the effects of music on the brain. Researchers found that there are differences in brain connectivity when we listen to a song we enjoy as opposed to one that we may dislike. What I thought was particularly fascinating was that even among individuals who were listening to entirely different genres of music, the effects were similar. To put in perspective, (building upon a similar anecdote utilized in the study), lets say person one enjoyed listening to traditional polka music featuring long accordion solos whereas person two loved listening to 80s music; the authors suggested that upon hearing their favorite songs, both individuals would have comparable pathways in the brain activate; a phenomena which the authors suggest would account for similarities in how they would react to hearing their favorite song. Thus, the takeaway is that while we may enjoy different types of music, biologically, our responses to music are actually quite similar.


While there may be differences amongst us in how we may individually react to a specific piece of music, it’s fascinating to see how music can influence us emotionally.

Objectively speaking, studies have long investigated the correlation between music and emotions. Different types of music therapy have been utilized as a form of therapeutic intervention for individuals with a variety of maladies ranging from Parkinson’s, dementia, to patients in palliative care. While researchers continue to investigate the exact mechanism in which music impacts us neurologically, the National Institutes of Health, (NIH), notes that music therapy has already served as an intervention for numerous years. One of their projects, also known as Sound Health, continues to investigate the relationship between music and the brain, how music can serve as a therapeutic tool, as well as increase public awareness about this relationship.


If anything it provides food for thought; it’s remarkable how a series of coordinated sounds can impact us so significantly.


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