By Melissa Thomas, Briar Woods High School & Academies of Loudoun, Leesburg, Virginia, USA
During the COVID-19 pandemic, teenagers were facing more mental health challenges than ever. To reduce stress, one solution that researchers have proposed is listening to music. Music helps enhance bodily functions and brain health in adolescents, providing potential benefits for mental health. Furthermore, musical participation and attending live performances have been proven to help memory, attentiveness, and cognitive skills. Therapists believe that mental health challenges can be addressed by inducing calmness through music therapy. Research has confirmed the many benefits of music, which can help to reduce the global mental health challenges brought by anxiety and stress among youth. The idea of music as a stress reliever seems simple, but the advantages of music therapy can still be further explored.
Award Winning TV Show Stranger Things incorporates a variety of 80s-themed music to help viewers visualize how it feels to live in old-town Hawkins, Indiana. The ominous, pitch-perfect synthesizer score creates the instantaneous feeling that you’re watching Stranger Things on an old-fashioned tube TV back in ’83 (Neal, 2021). One episode features the idea that music is “a lifeline to reality”, enabling those who are lost to find their way back to their duties and responsibilities by listening to their favorite song. In engaging with this music, listeners embrace a collective form of nostalgia for situations that are unlikely to have existed (Ballam-Cross, 2021). Pausing and listening to a sequence of instruments and computer-generated beats sounds too simple, but music can help listeners heal from illness and snap into an energetic persona.
The coronavirus pandemic brought about feelings of loneliness among teenagers across the globe. According to the National Alliance for Mental Health, music therapists can solve mental health disorders by inducing calmness and building resilience (Warren, 2016). In this article, Molly Warren, a music therapist, shares that a child who refused usual visits to their therapist found musical therapy to be an effective way to develop self-worth, helping him strengthen his relationships. Warren conveys that songwriting, active listening, lyric analysis, and improvisation music playing have all been shown to improve mental health conditions in patients.
Dozens of jazz performers and rappers improvise music while lying down inside an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machine, while Johns Hopkins researchers observe which areas of their brains light up (Johns Hopkins University, 2022). The brain is filled with neurons, messengers that signal messages to the different parts of the body. Neurotransmitters are chemical messengers that have receptors specific to signaling molecules, triggering a response across a synapse (Cleveland Clinic, 2022). Dopamine is a hormone released by the hypothalamus in the brain and is a feel-good hormone. Dopamine release occurs when individuals listen to music (Northshore, 2021). According to the Northshore article, dopamine affects physiology by relaxing blood vessels, allowing increased blood flow. High dopamine activity helps individuals feel happy, motivated, and aware of their surroundings. When individuals listen to an upbeat song, the act of listening can activate the release of dopamine into a synaptic gap, triggering a chemical signal across the brain. Dopaminergic structures within the brain, such as the striatum, have also been implicated in reward-related behavior (Brittanica, 2021).
Trends in the types of music that students at the University of Arizona listen to are indicated in the graphic below (UAGC, 2021). A common trend that emerged from the survey was that students preferred catchy music as opposed to relaxing music.
Figure 1: What music do students use to study? Data compiled from the University of Arizona (2021).
Students benefit from reduced tiredness, increased memory, and enhanced learning by listening to upbeat music while they are studying. The American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) conducted a study to explore the benefits of music exposure among adults (Harvard Health, 2020). The survey consisted of 3,185 adults from different environments and demographics. With the increasing interest in music, AARP research indicates that 69% of adults that go to musical performances report a healthy brain and clear mind, compared to 52% that did not attend in their younger days. AARP also reported that many adults believe they benefitted from listening to music when they were younger, and around 68% of adults indicated that they were above average in terms of learning new tasks. Quality of life ratings was also higher among those who indicated music was part of their elementary school experience (Rainville, 2020). According to the article, both casual and focused listeners, in fact, had slightly higher average scores for mental well-being and slightly reduced levels of anxiety and depression compared to people overall, the research found (Rainville, 2020).
Key aspects that help with auditory, memory, and learning methods include learning a new instrument or developing a new musical skill by using digital resources like GarageBand. Advances in technology make it easy for even novices to learn the basics without the need for a formal trainer or a band to play with. In addition, music streaming services such as Spotify, Pandora, and SoundCloud offer playlists and suggest similar genres of music for entertainment. These resources provide easy access to any type of music you prefer to be available at your fingertips. Aside from listening to music on a device, live music has been shown to increase levels of cognitive skills and memory recollection (Pack, 2021). The loud tunes of music playing on speakers at concerts, or even small-town coffee shops, can decrease levels of stress hormones. Goldsmith’s University study revealed that attending a live concert for just 20 minutes increased well-being by 21% The findings come off the back of bespoke psychometric and heart-rate tests at a range of wellbeing activities – including gig-going, yoga, and dog walking. (Pack, 2021).
With increased well-being and self-love, we can move closer to improving mental health across the world. Perhaps just a pair of headphones, a music app, and a few clicks can take us closer to improving the global health challenge of our generation: stress, anxiety, and mental health challenges.