Your favorite album doesn't just sound good — it may also be good for your mental health.
That's according to a new report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an AARP-founded working group of scientists, health care professionals and other experts. Their latest report, “Music on Our Minds,” highlights research showing music's positive effect on emotional well-being, including improving mood, decreasing anxiety, and managing stress.
"There are so many mechanisms that explain the powerful impact that listening to a piece of music can have,” says report contributor Suzanne Hanser, president of the International Association for Music & Medicine (IAMM) and a professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music.
As the report details, that impact starts in the brain, where music activates many regions, including those associated with emotion and memory. “The music that was played at your wedding or in a religious service, or even at a concert you attended or a dance you were at — that music remains preserved for those neuropathways that connect that music with really positive feelings,” Hanser says.
Research shows that music can have a beneficial effect on brain chemicals such as dopamine, which is linked to feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” And there is moderate evidence that music can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The report also includes findings from the 2020 AARP Music and Brain Health Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,185 adults that found that listening to music — whether in the background, by focused listening to recordings or at musical performances — had a small positive impact on mental well-being, depression and anxiety.
"Especially now, in times when people are feeling sad, stressed and isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people should definitely turn to music to better their mental well-being,” says GCBH Executive Director Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP's senior vice president for policy.
To boost music's mental-health benefits in your life, Hanser says anyone can adapt some of the techniques used by trained music therapists. One of them is what she calls “deep” or active listening — instead of putting on music as background noise, set aside time to concentrate on what you hear, taking note of the feelings, memories, and bodily sensations (whether that's a slowing of your heart rate or the urge to get up and dance) that arise as you listen.