Music and wellbeing

Rosie Mead is a Music Sociologist finishing her PhD at the University of Exeter. You can find her on Instagram - @iamrosiemead

I think it might be fair to say that if you’re reading this blog, you’re an active music listener. By this I mean that you listen to music probably on a daily basis, you have regular conversations around music, you might be a musician, music is a part of your life. But have you ever thought about how music affects your wellbeing?

It’s something I hadn’t thought of until I was in the last year of my Music degree, when I started exploring music psychology and the effect that music listening has on cognitive ability, productivity, sleep and overall mood. The more I delved into the ways that music supported wellbeing, the more apparent it became, music had been supporting my wellbeing all along, I just hadn’t realised it. This is probably true for a lot of us, music is always there, it’s on in the background, you couldn’t be without it, but we never really take the time to consider just how important music listening is for our wellbeing.

Let’s get more into the nitty gritty, rather than just focusing on the fact that music makes you feel happy (we all get that one right?!), but actually how can music support our wellbeing? Well, firstly, I like to point out that music listening is so subjective, and a piece which supports my wellbeing, might cause negative emotions for you! I think that’s the first thing we need to consider, is meaningful music.

In my day job I run a social enterprise which supports people living with dementia through music. I train caregivers to use music in their daily dementia care, and I am always talking about meaningful music. Don’t play music for music’s sake, but play music which is meaningful to the individual. I think this is appropriate for all of us, one of the great things about music is its ability to bring back memories, this only happens through music you already have associations with, music which is meaningful to you. My PhD supervisor Professor Tia DeNora, talks about refurnishing and removal, where music listening can either refurnish your current surroundings, or remove you to somewhere more conducive to your wellbeing. I know we can all relate to this one, probably more so during lockdown. Anyone else with kids you will definitely know what I mean!

Music is a great connector, and not just for musicians playing together. I haven’t listened to whole albums for years now, but through connections on Instagram (it’s how I discovered Wax and Beans, as well as Jon Matthews), I started having conversations around music listening, and I’m now making time each day to sit and listen to an album. I’ll then hop onto Instagram to talk about the album, and find out what others are listening to. I’ve missed this connection so much, and I think it’s a great example of the ways that music can create connections even in this disconnected time. I refer to it as musical connectedness, and I believe it is a main reason that music supports our wellbeing. This feeling of being part of a wider community, connected through musical experiences. Of course this feeling of musical connectedness comes through the act of music listening too, feeling connected with the artist and band, it’s hard to feel alone when there’s music playing.

In terms of the science behind it, listening to music we enjoy puts us in a better mood, it reduces cortisol (our stress hormone), it boosts creativity and productivity, it improves brain functionality, and it can help us to exercise harder, faster and longer, through creating distraction and elevating our mood. The amazing thing is that you don’t have to listen to familiar music to receive these benefits, while I talk about meaningful music, this doesn’t mean it has to be music you already know. In fact, research shows listening to new music is a great workout for your brain, as your brain has to make sense of the new sounds it hears, working out if they sound like something you have heard before. It then creates new memories associated with the piece of music, the piece can then become meaningful if it strikes the right chord (I had to get a pun in here right!). That’s why I’m always looking for new music, this isn’t a plug to sell a Wax and Beans record (although you totally should while you’re here, just saying!), but this is a call to discover new music, reconnect with old, connect with others through music, and connect with yourself. As I’ve hopefully shown, music listening is great for your wellbeing.

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