By Will Tottle
“If you were to look at those brains, you couldn’t tell the difference between people who were interacting through music and people who were interacting verbally” – Edward Roth
Music has been with us for thousands of years as a form of entertainment, communication, celebration, and mourning. There are so many different emotions that music can help us to express, and it is a language that we share universally, as well as one that everyone can understand.
The style of music that we listen to most and enjoy may change every decade, but that sense of communication and feeling always remains. If you, or someone close to you, suffer from mental health conditions, you may find that they listen to music quite a lot, or even play it.
Music has a way of helping us express emotions that we don’t even understand ourselves, and can put these feelings into meaningful lyrics, or just a tune that resonates with every fibre of our being.
For many, music is a lifeline that keeps them tethered to the world, and without it, so many of us would be lost entirely. It is because of this link that music therapy was developed, and it is a great way to learn how to channel your feelings and combat mental illness. As someone who suffers from crippling anxiety and waves of depression, I have always been interested in trying this form of therapy out.
Whether you like to play the music or listen to it, you might be surprised to discover how beneficial this form of treatment can be, and in this extensive article, we look at the different ways in which music therapy can boost mental health.
Music Therapy: What it is and its General Impact
Mental Health Statistics and Support
How Music Can Help Mental Health
ow Music Can Help the Elderly
ow Music Can Help Children
est Music for Mental Health
ow to Start Music Therapy
Music Therapy: What it is and its General Impact
What is Music Therapy?
Music therapy is classed as a form of expressive therapy that works to improve physical and mental health through the expression of emotions. There are two forms of music therapy, and these are called active and receptive. In the former, you will create music with your therapist or group (depending on the type of therapy you have sought).
This helps you to deal with emotions, alleviate stress, and can even relieve the symptoms of conditions like Alzheimer’s (something we will look at later). Receptive music therapy, on the other hand, is where you listen to music while you draw or partake in other relaxing activities.
In short, music therapy tends to consist of three potential activities: playing music, singing, or listening to music. You can either create your own music or learn to play specific pieces that you will practice and develop over time – it depends on your personal preferences. You also have plenty of choices, as you can decide what kind of music therapy you take as well as the type of music that you play.
One thing that makes a lot of people nervous is the fact that they do not know how to play a musical instrument. The great thing is that you don’t need to worry about that. Music therapy tends to involve instruments similar to the following: Drums, Cymbals, Wood blocks, Bells, Simple harps, Xylophone, Tambourines, Maracas.
These are basic instruments that don’t require skill or knowledge, and you can still have a great deal of fun playing them. Plus, they are just as expressive as a guitar or piano.
What Can it Do for Mental Health?
So how does this form of therapy impact mental health, and what kind of general advantages can it have? We will look at the ways in which it can help specific mental illnesses later, but for now, here is what you can expect it to do for you as a whole.
For starters, music therapy starts conversation, and it gets you talking about topics that you would have otherwise found difficult to discuss by having you rework lyrics, but also analysing the words that go with some of the songs you love the most. It creates a relaxed environment in which to talk, and one that doesn’t feel frightening or like actual therapy – allowing you to talk about past and present feelings alike without fear of judgement.
Leading on from this, you may also get the chance to write your own songs. This engages the creative parts of your mind, and rewards you with a sense of pride and self-worth. You can choose the instruments that go with the way you are feeling and create something truly expressive.
Through playing the instruments and improvising new melodies, emotional expression is encouraged, as is better socialisation – especially if you are in a therapy group. It allows you to explore different ways of expressing emotion, and the sounds that are associated with things like rage, joy, and grief. You can also use it to learn how to control these emotions over time, using the music to transition between them.
You can listen to music in order to regulate your mood, and this is because of the way in which music is repetitive and engages the neocortex of the brain – calming you and reducing the desire to be impulsive. Music therapy will help you to stop matching the music to your mood, as depressing music can leave us stuck in a loop – a symptom that we explore later on.
This teaches you better habits when listening to music, and can leave you with a boosted mood. To summarise, here are the top things music therapy can help you with:
- Express yourself and talk about feelings you find difficult to process/discuss
- Deal with past trauma and emotions
- Improve social skills and emotion regulation
- Give you better faith and confidence in yourself
Mental Health Statistics and Support
Before we move onto how music can help with specific mental health issues, here are some interesting statistics for you to look at, displaying how many people (roughly) in the USA and UK suffer from mental health issues and try to commit suicide.
Mental Health Problem
Generalised Anxiety Disorder 5.9/100 people 3.1%
Depression 3.3/100 people 8.3%
Phobias 2.4/100 people 8.7%
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder 1.3/100 people 1%
Panic Disorder 0.6/100 people 2.7%
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder 4.4/100 people 3.5%
Psychotic Disorder 0.7/100 people >1%
Bipolar Disorder 2.0/100 people 2.6%
Antisocial Personality Disorder 3.3/100 people 4%
Borderline Personality Disorder 2.4/100 people 1.6%
Mixed Anxiety and Depression 7.8/100 people 6.7%
Suicidal Thoughts 20.6/100 people 4%
Suicide Attempts 6.7/100 people 0.5%
Self-Harm 7.3/100 people 4% (adult) 15% (teen)
Never feel as though you are alone if you are struggling with your mental health. There are people you can call for help no matter where you are or what time it is. Below, you will find the top numbers to call for the UK and the USA if you find yourself in need of help.
UK: Samaritans (24/7) 116 123
USA: Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7) 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
How Music Can Help Mental Health
Music therapy has only really become popular over the past couple of years, and as a result, there is not as much research as we would like for every mental health condition. To help you as much as we can, we have taken the mental illnesses with the most research and evidence, placing them here so that you can see the ways in which music therapy can help, and maybe even apply them to yourself if we are not able to cover it here.
Anxiety (General and Social)
Anxiety comes in many forms, from a mild version that causes some disturbance to a crippling beast that you just can’t shake. Regardless of the form you live with, it is a difficult illness to have, but also one that might be able to benefit from the excellence of music therapy.
When listening to music, or creating it, the levels of cortisol in our bodies is lowered dramatically, and this also decreases your heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels. It creates a more relaxed environment, and the longer you spend listening to/creating it in a chilled location, the better you are going to feel. Plus, it creates an enhanced feeling of satisfaction and pride when you create something.
Social anxiety works in much the same way, and spending some time listening to music will help you to feel calmer and more confident in your abilities and the plans you have made. Case studies have shown that patients who underwent music therapy for their anxiety ended up feeling less anxious and more relaxed by the time it was over, and this is a very positive step forward.
One of the things we look at later on is the fact that sad music can actually make you feel more depressed than you were before, and so you need to try something different. Depression can be hard to cope with, regardless of how severe or mild your strain is, and music is often a great tool to help combat these feelings of failure and inadequacy.
NHS studies found that those who took music therapy courses were less likely to drop out of the sessions and had a higher attendance rating than those who took part in normal counselling. After three months of music therapy, the depression levels in the patients were much lower than when they left – especially when compared to the group that was receiving standard care.
Music can also reduce your blood pressure, leaving you feeling more relaxed and comfortable while you listen to tunes or create new ones. Being able to create something beautiful also offers you a sense of validation and self-worth, while also providing you with a good dose of serotonin to boost your mood and leave your day ending on a brighter note.
On the whole, music therapy gets you to socialise with others and express yourself, while also giving you the chance to grab onto a little happiness while you ride the wave out and start feeling a little normal again.
PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)
Whether you have been through singular or multiple traumas, there is a chance that you may have PTSD. This often consists of feelings of anxiety, tension, and dread, as well as vivid nightmares (or night terrors) and flashbacks to the event in question. Any way you slice it, this condition is not a kind one, and it can be very difficult to live with and try to overcome.
Studies have shown that PTSD can be successfully calmed with music. They show that music can actually reduce prominent symptoms of PTSD like emotionally-dysregulating intrusions, avoidance, mood swings, arousal, and high reactivity. It can lead to an improved ability to function properly, meaning that you can try to live your life as normally as possible once the music therapy starts to kick in.
The music works by triggering a release of good chemicals and hormones throughout the body, like dopamine and serotonin. These are able to work to distract the body from negative thoughts that have started, but also help to boost your mood overall so that you can start to feel a little better in yourself.
The music travels through the brain and to the auditory cortex, which is linked to emotion, memory, and body control, so your mind can work together to create a more calming environment.
OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder)
Contrary to popular belief, OCD is not all about cleaning and washing your hands. It is also intrusive thoughts that won’t leave you alone and harmful habits that you never seem to be able to stop. It can be a stressful way to live, and one that feels as though you never get any respite from. Music can provide a little escape from your own mind, and be very beneficial while doing so.
There is a lot of pent-up frustration with OCD, and studies by Jose Van Den Hurk have shown that playing music can help those with OCD to properly express the way they feel over time, and as they become more comfortable around their therapist.
This form of expression can even lead to physical talks about the way they are feeling and what they are struggling with. Music therapy can also increase spontaneity and the willingness to try something new and unpredictable.
The OCD mind is often locked in routine, and the notion of doing something that has not been planned gets your mind out of that and has you focus on better and more positive things. It shuts down the thoughts that have been flooding through your mind because it is flowing and does not get stuck in loops like your head.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder)
While it is most commonly associated with children, ADHD does last into adulthood, and it can be just as difficult to cope with. A lack of concentration and focus, as well as seemingly endless energy, can leave those that have the condition feeling drained and frustrated. The mind has too much going on, and there feels like it’s impossible to refocus it.
Music therapy has been shown to increase the amount of dopamine produced by the body, and this is the neurotransmitter responsible for concentration and working memory. People with ADHD have low levels of it, and so music provides a good and increased dose to keep things running smoothly. It also engages both sides of the brain, helping them to become stronger and also boosting creativity.
Due to both sides being activated at once, it also means that you can improve your concentration, and the distracted part of the mind is able to focus on the music while you concentrate on something else. This is part of improving multi-tasking as well as audio-processing and smoother thought processes.
Structure is an important part of life for those with ADHD, and music is always structured in some way – whether it’s in the lyrics or the very beat itself. The fact that it is so organised has a soothing effect, and also means that those with ADHD can start to learn how to lead more ordered lives. This is very positive because the ADHD mind needs a lot of routine to function efficiently.
Like ADHD, autism is a condition that lasts for life, and there are millions of adults across the world who have autism. It is a spectrum disorder, and it changes the way we think, feel, and behave. Symptoms can vary depending on where you are on the autism spectrum, and so music can yield different results depending on who you try it with.
There are many autistic adults that are non-verbal, and this makes trying to communicate a very stressful and frustrating task. However, music has been shown to aid this process – giving them a language that they can use to talk to those around them and tell everyone exactly how they feel. There have even been some cases where they have started to use words as well as the music, which is a massive breakthrough.
For everyone on the spectrum, it is a new way to communicate, improving social skills while also reducing feelings of loneliness and isolation. Since those with autism tend to show a higher interest in music than the average person, it is a great way to get people engaged and talking to each other.
Much like those with ADHD, people with autism also like structure and routine, something that music is full of, and it can invoke a sense of calm, as well as further interest in creating set rhythms of their own.
It is a surprisingly common condition, the inability to fall asleep at night because the mind is racing with thoughts. We all have a hormone called noradrenaline, and this is what causes us to be watchful and alert, which is great when we are awake, but not so much when we are sleeping.
If you have too much noradrenaline in your system, you will feel more stressed and anxious, as well as find yourself completely unable to sleep. It can affect your ability to function, but listening to music is able to help – even if it’s just for 45 minutes before you fall asleep.
It can lead to much better sleep quality, improved mood, and even improved concentration. Once you are able to fall into a regular sleep pattern with the help of your music, you may even start to benefit from deeper sleep – leaving you very well rested.
How Music Can Help the Elderly
While the elderly can, and often do, suffer from all of the mental illnesses we have mentioned above (and more), there are also some that tend to affect older people far more frequently. It is in this section that we take a look at each of them and the ways in which music can help to alleviate symptoms and boost their mood.
Alzheimer’s is actually a form of dementia, and it can cause cognitive difficulties, like memory loss, perception, and learning. Additionally, it can cause severe mood swings and sudden bouts of anger, and even violence. It’s a difficult and progressive disease, but there have been some promising results from music therapy.
The way in which music therapy works is by creating a relaxing environment in which those who suffer from Alzheimer’s can create music together or sing songs that resonate in a positive manner with each of them. This can alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, and social isolation because they are in a group and interacting with each other.
On a related note, there has also been a lot of research into sound waves and how they might be able to pause Alzheimer’s symptoms. It is an interesting branch when it comes to finding a cure for the condition, and it does involve a form of music therapy – although it is one that is less diverse and interactive.
This is caused by changes in the brain, usually as a result of disease or trauma, and they can happen very quickly or over a long period of time – it’s down to the individual. It is a cognitive disease, which means it affects things like decision making, judgement, memory, verbal communication, special awareness, and general thought and reasoning.
However, music therapy has had a massively positive impact on dementia sufferers. It is an interactive and engaging activity that helps them to express thoughts and feelings, as well as connect with others around them, so they don’t feel as isolated anymore.
On top of all the social benefits, it can also boost physical activity as the music often results in participants getting up and dancing. This enhances mood, leaving you feeling way better than you did on arrival.
We’ve mentioned the concept of music therapy alleviating feelings of loneliness and isolation a few times, but it is good to have all the key information in one place. Music therapy is a way for everyone to get together in one place, share ideas, and collaborate in order to create new music together.
It is both a social exercise and one that increases mood, as well as alleviates anxiety, stress, and depression. It’s a helpful and beneficial practice overall – both for the elderly and younger generations.
How Music Can Help Children
Even kids can benefit from music and music therapy, and you may be surprised to discover just how much it can benefit them. In this section, we look at some common conditions, as well as the effect music has on children before they are even born – giving you better insight into how your child might be able to take advantage of it.
Just as in adults, autism is a spectrum, and as such music therapy can have a different effect on each of the people who take part in it. While music therapy works excellently across the spectrum, some of the best and most exciting results are in those who are non-verbal, meaning that they cannot speak, or have a very limited ability to do so.
Studies have shown that those who are non-verbal have been able to use music therapy as a way to interact and express emotions that they otherwise would not be able to because they do not have the words. Even very basic instruments, like cymbals, are a great way for them to express themselves.
It allows them to socialise and discover a new language, and brain scans show that the area where language is stored looks the same in those communicating with music, as it does those with words. Regardless of where a child is on the spectrum, music therapy can help them to achieve the following:
- The ability to listen better
- Spontaneous play
- The desire to communicate and engage with others
- The ability to build better relationships
- The ability to express themselves
- Language development through songs
- Learning to share and take turns
- Boost the imagination and creativity
- Strengthen muscles and coordination
The reason for all of these good things is that music therapy creates a relaxed and enjoyable environment where they are stimulated and engaged, and all of this combined creates positive results for them as they grow and learn.
It can be hard having ADHD because you are so full of energy and unable to focus on one thing for more than a few minutes. Your mind is moving at a million miles an hour, and it is hard to get it to stop. Music therapy, however, can help with a few of the symptoms quite effectively.
You see, music consists of rhythm, and rhythm is a form of structure, and this appeals to the ADHD mind because all it wants is structure and organisation. It has a clear beginning, middle, and end, so everything is anticipated, and in the long run, it can help a child with ADHD learn planning and organisation so that they can lead a more structured life.
ADHD brains have a pretty low dopamine level, and this is the neurotransmitter that is responsible for motivation, attention, and working memory. Music activates both sides of the brain, which means everything is engaged, and the activated brain muscles are able to become stronger – boosting things like motivation and the ability to focus.
Music therapy also gives kids a chance to get up and dance, allowing themselves to move freely and burn some of that pent-up energy. It also doubles up as a form of expression, as dance is a very emotive activity, allowing them to engage with others and tell them how they are feelingthrough the combination of music and dance.
It is a fun experience for those with ADHD, but also a social one. It can be hard to know how to act appropriately, especially for children, and music encourages socialisation through song and playing instruments. They learn how to work together when creating song lyrics, as well as a musical number that they can perform in the group.
This is an interesting area, and studies have shown that playing music while a foetus is growing and developing in the womb will make them more responsive to it after birth. This means that some babies may find that music relaxes and soothes them when they become distressed, helping them to sleep and stay a little quieter.
Preterm babies that are exposed to music tend to have increased feeding rates, reduced days to discharge, increased weight gain, and a better tolerance of stimulation. After therapy, they may even have reduced heart rates and deeper sleep.
Best Music for Mental Health
We all have songs that help us get through the most difficult times. Personally, I really enjoy listening to sounds of the ocean when I am really struggling, or Zen music. However, I know others that like to listen to heavy metal in order to start feeling alright again. There’s no wrong answer for which music to listen to in order to help your mental health, but I do have a few good suggestions you might want to try.
Anxiety and Social Anxiety
Interestingly, there is an actual song that was developed for relieving anxiety, and it can reduce the feelings and symptoms by up to 65% - which is pretty remarkable. Created by Marconi Union in collaboration with sound therapists, the song Weightless consists of a series of carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms and bass lines that are there to slow your heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and the stress hormone cortisol.
Generally speaking, slower music like the songs sung by Adele and even some Coldplay singles are ideal for reliving those tight and tense feelings of anxiety – but you should have Marconi Union at the top of your list. You can also try these Binaural Beats on YouTube; you might find them to be quite relaxing.
The most important thing you can do when you are feeling depressed is resist the sad music on your phone or in your CD collection. Listening to sad music does more harm than good, and can actually lower your mood and leave you feeling worse than before. Instead, you need upbeat and uplifting songs on your playlist to really help you fight the battle and win against your depression.
Artists like Pharrell Williams, who creates music that is catchy and focuses on positive emotions are the best ones to listen to when you are trying to relieve your depression. Walk On by U2 and Keep Your Head Up by Andy Grammar are just another two songs that can really help to boost your mood and assist you with getting through difficult times. My personal favourite? Don’t Stop by Fleetwood Mac.
Much like with anxiety, if you want to reduce stress (and therefore the hormone cortisol that creates it), you are going to want to listen to music with a soft and gentle rhythm. It will lower your blood pressure, relieve tension, and help you to feel a little less worried about the road ahead. It’s a great coping strategy, and a healthy one.
The album In My Time by Yanni has no vocals. Instead, it is a beautiful combination of piano and orchestra – creating a soothing and relaxing atmosphere that you can melt into. More than that, each track on the album has uplifting undertones to boost your mood. Maroon 5 is an excellent band to look at for stress relief, and the album Songs by Jane is filled with mellow and upbeat songs to brighten your day and calm the soul.
Studies have shown that the best music for PTSD contains low pitches, have a steady beat, and is slow. In addition to this, it can be very beneficial to use binaural beats and isochronic tones, each of which triggers a chemical reaction in the brain to help calm the mind and relieve feelings of terror and anxiety.
This particular YouTube soundtrack has been created specifically for PTSD, and it contains carefully embedded binaural beats that can help with sleep and feelings of calm. It also lasts for an hour, so you can spend time meditating and really focussing on the music. There are quite a few binaural tracks out there that you can look at, but the one we have suggested is certainly in the top five.
As the music helps you to focus on the song as opposed to obsessive and intrusive thoughts, it is important to consider your song choice carefully. Honestly, there is not a specific type of music that can help, although some sufferers feel that binaural beats can be quite refreshing.
As long as the song help you to focus on other things, you are good to go. Some of the top suggestions from OCD sufferers have been Heavy by Linkin Park and this classical music selection that is said to be able to free you from your OCD symptoms for a time.
The ADHD mind can become distracted easily and lose focus, and so music with lyrics can actually assist with that interruption and cause a new focus for the mind. As a result, many ADHD sufferers have found that listening to classical music, or music with no lyrics in general, can help to keep the mind focused on the task at hand, as well as giving the part of the brain that interrupts you something to focus on.
Bach, Mozart, and Handel are just some of the artists that can create a peaceful background while you try to work, keeping your mind on what you are doing in the present moment. There is also a company called Focus at Will, and this creates soundtracks to suit the type of thinker you are, but also has one dedicated to those with ADHD – adults and kids alike. You might want to try it out.
Due to the fact that autism is such a vast spectrum, the type of music that helps varies from person to person, and where they are on it. Plus, there are times where music can make things worse – such as if it is put on when a person is suffering from a sensory overload. However, there are some ideas for what might help you out, and the songs here are recommended by those that suffer from autism.
The key thing here is that all of the music is soft and mellow, which has a calming effect and will reduce feelings of anxiety and tension. Here Comes the Sun by the Beatles is a popular choice, as is I Will Wait by Mumford and Sons. Similarly, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata can help massively due to its calm melody and lack of lyrics.
When you can’t sleep and spend ages looking up at the ceiling, the last thing you need to listen to is music that has a fast pace and beat. This is because it will boost the amount of noradrenaline that your body is producing, keeping you awake and watchful all through the night. Instead, for 45 minutes before you go to sleep, why not take our music advice? Harmat’s insomnia study in 2008 proved its effectiveness after all.
The songs here are ones that other insomnia sufferers recommend because of their calming melodies. Midnight by Coldplay is a prime example, and the first one you should add to your sleep playlist. Weightless by Marconi Union (a song we talk about more in the anxiety section) is also an excellent choice. Try adding On Melancholy Hill by Gorillaz, as well as Nude by Radiohead.
How to Start Music Therapy
There are two ways in which you can start music therapy. The first is by getting a referral from your doctor – either for you or your child – and they will send you to a specific centre. Often, this is funded by the NHS. In the USA, there may be some charities that fund music therapy if you cannot afford it. In both the UK and USA, you may be expected to pay for some courses, depending on your age and circumstances.
You can also go directly to music therapy centres yourself and contact them for self-referral to one of their courses. We have gathered some of the top centres in the UK and USA for you to take a look at, so you can see what they offer and the conditions that they are able to help with.
UK Music Therapy Centres:
Nordoff Robbins: Located across the UK
British Association for Music Therapy: Located across the UK
Richmond Music Trust: Located in Twickenham and Teddington
Belltree Music Therapy Centre: Located in Brighton
The Owl Centre: Located across the South of England
USA Music Therapy Centres:
Music Therapy Centre: Located in California
Centre for Music Therapy: Located in Texas
Hopefully, this has helped you to understand what music therapy is, how it works, and the ways in which it might be able to benefit you, or a loved one, who is suffering from a mental illness. There are so many conditions that have yet to be properly explored with music therapy, and we hope that they are added to the list soon so that even more people can experience the incredible benefits.
Generally speaking, soft and steady rhythms seem to be the best choice for most conditions, and it has an amazing way of reducing our stress levels, relieving tension, and generally boosting our mood. Music is a wonderful tool that we do no use enough, and hopefully, this will start getting you interested in seeing if music therapy is something that can work for you.
What did you think of our guide to music and the effect it has on mental health? Did you find the points we made valid and interesting, or were there areas that you think could have been further explored? We love hearing from you, so leave a message in the comments below.
References and Resources List