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Music Can Be a Great Mood Booster

7 tips for using the power of music to help you feel happier

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Your favorite album doesn’t just sound good — it may also be good for your mental health.

That’s according to a report from the Global Council on Brain Health (GCBH), an AARP-founded working group of scientists, health care professionals and other experts. Their report, “Music on Our Minds,” highlights research showing music’s positive effect on emotional well-being, including improving mood, decreasing anxiety and managing stress.

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“There are so many mechanisms which 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, which 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 evidence that music can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. ​

How music can keep your brain healthy

The report also includes findings from the 2020 AARP Music and Brain Health Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,185 adults, which 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.

“In times when people feel sad, stressed, anxious or lonely, listening to or making music can often help people boost 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.

“We can do that even when we’re feeling at our most isolated and sad,” she says. “We can take control, we can be empowered by the music to feel differently.”

How to use music to provide a mental boost

1. Explore technology that can enable you to listen to music across multiple devices, such as your phone or television. Try music apps, such as Spotify or Pandora, which will suggest new music you might enjoy based on algorithms identifying music similar to your current selections.

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2. Enjoy listening to familiar music that comforts you and evokes positive memories and associations.

3. If you are unhappy, try listening to or making music to improve your mood or relieve feelings of depression.

4. Dance, sing or move to music. These activities not only provide physical exercise but can also relieve stress and build social connections — and they’re fun ways to stimulate your brain.

5. While listening to music that you know and like tends to cause the strongest brain response and dopamine release, try listening to new music. Unfamiliar melodies may stimulate your brain, while providing a new source of pleasure as you get used to hearing them.

6. Make music yourself! Music making includes singing and playing an instrument. Learning to play a musical instrument can offer a sense of mastery and self-esteem, while enhancing brain activity. Singing may be the simplest way to get started.

7. Listen to fun music when you exercise. Music can help motivate you to move. “And it can hasten clearance of lactic acid buildup during recovery from vigorous exercise, according to the GCBH report. ​

Editor’s note: This story, originally published June 30, 2020, was updated to reflect new information.  

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