*Note: This post was written with assistance from psychologist and research scientist Dr. B Grace Bullock.
Some days, all we need is peace and quiet. Other times, music can be a very helpful tool for boosting our well-being. Music can positively affect our emotional state, exercise routine, sleep and healing. Additionally, music lessons are shown to benefit students in a variety of ways.
Studies have shown that music can lift our mood and somewhat reduce feelings of depression by lowering the levels of stress-related hormones in our bodies. A study by Stanford University showed that listening to music can be as helpful as meditation for stress reduction.
By activating certain brain structures and neurochemical (brain chemical) systems, music boosts our emotional regulation.
Music can also have an impact on our beta waves. Beta waves are the brainwaves we use when we’re actively thinking, such as problem solving or focusing on a task or process. Music can affect our beta waves in ways that cause us to feel happier, more alert and more positive.
However, your playlist does matter. Because the rhythm, lyrics and other parts of songs can affect our heart rates and brain networks, it’s important to pick songs that are uplifting or soothing to you. The rap your neighbor likes might put you on edge, but the pop Top 40 you enjoy may be cringe worthy to them. Though scientists can generalize about the types of songs and music that help us lower stress, personal preferences are important.
There’s a reason spin class and Zumba instructors pump up the music – it affects our physical ability in multiple ways.
- Listening to music before exercising can increase physical arousal, which is managed by the brainstem. This increase in body activation and adrenaline can help us feel excited to work out.
- We enjoy exercise more with music. The increase in beta waves can help us feel more positive, even if we don’t particularly love the activity we’re doing. (Try putting on an upbeat playlist when cleaning, it can help!)
- During a workout, music can delay our feelings of fatigue, improve energy efficiency, increase our blood flow and increase our physical capacity.
- Music can distract us from the discomfort we might feel during exercise. Listening to music also releases endorphins in the brain; endorphins help us feel less pain and lower our anxiety levels.
The tempo of the music matters. A study of cyclists demonstrated that upbeat songs with faster tempos helped participants stay engaged and motivated. Slower tempos caused the cyclists to slow down; their heart rates dropped and they pedaled with less power.
Results of another study showed that walkers who listened to music were less focused but had more energy and enjoyed their walk more than those who listened to podcasts or nothing at all. Researchers also found that listening to music had the potential to increase beta waves in the frontal regions of the brain and evoke a more positive state of mind. This suggests that people who need a bit of motivation to exercise might benefit from listening to music that they enjoy as part of their fitness routine.
Fun fact: Music of 130-150 beats per minute (BPM) is optimal workout music. Songs that fall into this range include:
- “Beat It” by Michael Jackson
- “Bring It On” by Trace Adkins
- “Everytime We Touch” by Cascada
- “Drunk in Love” by Beyonce
- “Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen
There are websites like Jog.fm that can help you find optimal songs for your workout playlist. If you’re doing an activity like yoga, keep in mind that 130-150 BPM is likely not ideal for your workout, which is probably slower paced and more intentional than cycling, walking, running or other aerobic exercise.
Sleep and Relaxation
Sleep is a vital part of our well-being. A meta-analysis of 10 studies also demonstrated that music can improve sleep quality; one study in particular showed that participants slept better after listening to 45 minutes of classical music before going to bed.
Though it’s best to keep electronics out of the bedroom for optimal sleep, using a music app with a sleep timer can help you get your classical music listening in as you wind down for sleep.
Additionally, the following types of music, as well as classical, were identified by some research as the most helpful for sleep and relaxation:
- Native American music
- Celtic music
- Indian stringed instruments, drums and flutes
- Nature sounds such as rain and thunder
- Light jazz or easy listening music
Fun Fact: The free version of the Relax Melodies app lets you layer gentle sounds, such as flutes and thunderstorms, to create your own sleep song. You can set a timer on the app so it doesn’t run all night.
Did you know music can help us slow our heart rate and decrease our blood pressure? It can also help us relax our muscles, including those which usually hold tension, like the neck and shoulders.
Calming music can also help us regulate our breathing. Similarly to how fast tempo music helps us stay energized when working out or cleaning house, slower tempos can bring us back to a calm and relaxed state. Slow tempo music can help us be our best selves at home, at work and in traffic!
Music also has the power to help on a larger scale. A study in Finland showed that stroke patients who listened to several hours of music a day had improved focus, better verbal memory and a more positive attitude.
Hospitals have used music as a way to calm patients before procedures like angiographies and knee surgery. Patients that listen to music prior to the operation, while in the operating room, reported feeling more comfortable and less anxious. They didn’t need sedatives as much, and patients that listened to music in their recovery room didn’t need as much opioid medication post-procedure.
For cancer patients, listening to music has been shown to reduce anxiety, nausea and vomiting.
Adults with dementia can be calmed and reminded of different memories by listening to music.
As scientists continue to study the benefits of music on our health, music is becoming a part of treatments and therapy. One area of interest is music for patients with Parkinson’s disease; because music and motor control share circuits in the brain, scientists hope to find ways that music can improve the movement of patients with Parkinson’s.
Fun fact: A cat’s purr is a frequency of 25-150 Hertz, a frequency that has been shown to improve bone density and help heal human bones and muscles. Frequencies of 35-50 Hertz help bones while frequencies around 100 Hertz affect skin and tissue.
Becoming trauma-informed has helped many school districts support students with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Studies show that having positive outlets to express trauma, such as through art and music, can support students in their healing. Music and art can both calm the body’s stress response. The High School for Recording Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota, has been able to foster deeper connections and better understanding of its students by offering this outlet. Because of the stigma around mental health issues and the personal nature of childhood trauma, students that aren’t ready to talk about their problems can channel them into the music.
Access to music lessons can also affect students academically. These facts from the NAMM Foundation share how music can impact student success. Find the full list of facts and related information on their website.
- Children who study a musical instrument are more likely to work better in teams, have enhanced critical thinking skills, stay in school, and pursue further education
- Children who study music tend to have larger vocabularies and more advanced reading skills than their peers who do not participate in music lessons
- Children with learning disabilities or dyslexia who tend to lose focus in environments with more noise could benefit greatly from music lessons
- Everyday listening skills are stronger in musically-trained children than in those without music training
- Studies have shown that young children who take keyboard lessons have greater abstract reasoning abilities than their peers, and that these abilities improve over time with sustained training in music
- Young children who take music lessons show different brain development and improved memory over the course of a year, compared to children who do not receive musical training
- A Canadian study of 48 preschoolers published in 2011 found that verbal IQ increased after only 20 days of music training; the increase was five times that of a control group of preschoolers who were given visual art lessons
- African-American and Hispanic parents generally believe more strongly in a wide array of potential benefits from music education, are more likely to have seen these positive impacts on their own child and more strongly support expanding music education programs
- Unfortunately, these parents also are more likely to report that there are no music programs in their schools
How can your workplace integrate music to benefit students and staff?
Resources and Related Reading:
How Music Can Help You Heal – Harvard Health Publishing
The Benefits of Music: How the Science of Music Can Help You – Science of People
What Are Brainwaves? – Brainworks Neurotherapy
Music Makes Us Enjoy Exercise More, Finds Brain Study – Medical News Today
Music and Exercise: What Current Research Tells Us – Psychology Today
Music May Replace Sedatives for Treating Pre-op Anxiety – Medical News Today
How Children Benefit From Music Education in Schools – NAMM Foundation
How Making Music Can Help Students Cope with Trauma – Mind Shift