BENEFITS: Community, Cognitive, Mood Boost, and Physical.
In 2009, archaeologists excavating a cave in southern Germany uncovered a flute carved from a vulture’s wing bone. The delicate artifact is the oldest known musical instrument on earth — indicating that people have been making music for over 40,000 years.
Although we can’t be sure exactly when human beings began listening to music, scientists do know something about why we do. Listening to music benefits us individually and collectively. Here’s what research tells us about the power of music to improve our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Evolutionary scientists say human beings may have developed a dependence on music as a communication tool because our ancestors descended from arboreal species — tree-dwellers who called to one another across the canopy.
- national anthems connect crowds at sporting events
- protest songs stir a sense of shared purpose during marches
- hymns build group identity in houses of worship
- love songs help prospective partners bond during courtship
- lullabies enable parents and infants to develop secure attachments
Researchers now know that just the promise of listening to music can make you want to learn more. In one 2019 study, people were more motivated to learn when they expected to listen to a song as their reward.
In one study trusted source, researchers gave people tasks that required them to read and then recall short lists of words. Those who were listening to classical music outperformed those who worked 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. Mozart helped people complete the task faster and more accurately.
Mayo Clinic points out that while music doesn’t reverse the memory loss experienced by people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, music has been found to slow cognitive decline Trusted Source, helping people with mild or moderate dementia remember episodes from their lives.
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.
- dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and “reward” centers
- stress hormones like cortisol
- serotonin and other hormones related to immunity
- oxytocin, a chemical that fosters the ability to connect to others
Although more research needs to be done to understand precisely how music can be used therapeutically to treat mental
illness, some studies Trusted Source suggests that music therapy can improve the quality of life and social
connectedness for people with schizophrenia.
Although more research needs to be done to understand precisely how music can be used therapeutically to treat mental illness, some studiesTrusted Source suggests that music therapy can improve the quality of life and social connectedness for people with schizophrenia.
One of the most common uses of music? It helps people regulate their emotions rested Source, researchers found. It has the power to change moods and help people process their feelings.
StudiesTrusted Source has shown that people in rehab after a stroke are more relaxed once they’ve listened to music for an hour.
Similar studiesTrusted Source indicates that music blended with nature sounds helps people feel less anxious. Even people facing critical illness rested Source feel less anxiety after music therapy.
There’s conflicting evidence about whether listening to music has an effect on your body’s physiological stress response, however. One study trusted Source indicated that the body releases less cortisol, a stress hormone when people listen to music. This same study referenced previous research stating that music had a little measurable effect on cortisol levels.
One recent study trusted Source that measured several indicators of stress (not just cortisol) concluded that while 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.
Not into jazz or the classics? You may want to try a group percussion session instead. The same research review found that drum circles also had above-average benefits for people dealing with depression.
Musical genre matters for depression
One important note: StudiesTrusted Source has found that nostalgic sad tunes can actually increase symptoms of depression, especially if you tend to ruminate or withdraw socially. Not surprising, perhaps, but important to know if you want to use music to counteract the blues.
Music’s effects on the body
In 2015, researchers trusted Source at Shanghai University found that relaxing music helped reduce fatigue and maintain muscle endurance when people were engaged in a repetitive task.
Music therapy sessions also lessened fatigue in people receiving cancer treatments and raised the fatigue threshold for people engaged in demanding neuromuscular training, which leads us to the next big benefit.
A 2020 research review confirms that working out with music improves your mood, helps your body exercise more efficiently and cuts down on your awareness of exertion. Working out with music also leads to longer workoutsTrusted Source.
In clinical settings, athletes who listened to high-intensity, fast music during warmups were motivatedTrusted Source to perform better competitively.
You don’t have to be a world-class competitor to benefit: ResearchTrusted Source shows that syncing your workout to music can allow you to reach peak performance using less oxygen than if you did the same workout without the beat. Music acts as a metronome in your body, researchers said.