Pixr: Craig Cloutier

“Music gives wings to mind.” No, not a new Red Bull slogan, but rather the words of Plato, contemplating the therapeutic power of music. The Ancient Greek philosopher captured the uplifting, euphoric emotions that certain forms of music can induce and reinforce. Shouting along to Nirvana can relieve pent-up stress, as much as listening to Taylor Swift’s latest persona can be cathartic. More often than not, a ‘Bad Day’ of work or study can only be alleviated by Daniel Powter, however clichéd it may seem. Music is therefore a crucial component of everyday mental self-care, providing positive reinforcement and a route to happiness. Many now also see Adele ballads and Chopin sonatas as a crucial part of the future of mental health treatment, the perfect addition to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) when treating depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia.

As accessible coping mechanisms go, music is high up the list, and our understanding of how harmony and melody can alleviate negativity is slowly but surely growing. A study conducted by the universities of Jyväskylä, Helsinki and Aalto recently categorised the varieties of relief mechanisms music provided. Through an analysis of 123 men and women, varying between the ages of 18 and 55, psychologists decided on three such categorisations: Solace, Diversion, and Discharge.

“Listening to miserable lyrics can also help you find the positives in your own situation”

With solace, people listen to music that mimics their current emotional state. The depressing ballads and heartbroken singalongs of Damien Rice and Tom Odell are written with this in mind, targeted at an audience with which negativity will most resonate. Indeed, melancholy songs are known to produce an excess of pleasure-inducing prolactin and dopamine hormones in the brain, momentarily raising our mood and lifting us above any potential sadness. Listening to miserable lyrics can also help you find the positives in your own situation – a psychological concept known as ‘downward social comparison’. As always, Elton John beat the crowd in anticipating the mournful ballad’s benefits: ‘Sad Songs’ do indeed ‘Say So Much’.

Diversion, as the name suggests, involves a mental investment in a song in order to distract from a current mood. Discharge, in turn, is listening to a type of music that matches your negative mood to help better express the emotion. For example, listening to Slipknot on repeat in order to vocalise an inner fury or rage would be a form of emotional ‘discharge’. However, this form of music therapy has its downsides. The study found that participants (in particular men) who listened to music to express negative emotion activated significantly less of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) than other participants. The mPFC is the crucial section of the brain involved in emotional regulation. Turning up the D’n’B mid-essay crisis may not be the best route to catharsis.

This newfound understanding of music’s ability to regulate emotions could have a profound effect on mental health treatment. ‘Active music therapy’ is an example of this. In an active session, the therapist and the patient improvise, recreate, or compose together, the therapist creating questioning melodies for the patient to answer. The aim is to express non-verbal feelings that are often too dark or repressed to express through conventional means. The sheer physicality of playing music in a group can also help build interpersonal empathy between patients who have autism or similar conditions. Like with the sway of musicians in a string quartet, active music therapy unifies people into one melodic whole. As TS Eliot says in his The Dry Salvages, “you are the music while the music lasts”.

“Music therapy can have physiological, as well as mental benefits”

Music therapy can have physiological, as well as mental benefits. Your heart health may be improved through regular listening, for instance. “Music induces a continuous, dynamic — and to some extent predictable — change in the cardiovascular system,” said Luciano Bernardi, a professor of medicine at the University of Pavia in Italy. Bernardi’s study found that songs with a series of crescendos – think Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ – caused a proportional constriction of blood vessels and increases in blood pressure, heart rate and respiration in the participants. Such temporary increases in blood pressure are key to maintaining strong heart muscles. In short, Scaramouche, Scaramouche, do the Fandango.

Music therapy also taps into a pre-natal interest in rhythm and melody. Connie Tomaino, the executive director of the Institute for Music and Neurological Function, says that we are “prewired to be receptive to rhythm” thanks to nine months of listening to two sets of heart beats: our mother’s and our own. Some believe that the increased popularity of high tempo dance music in the 80s and 90s was down to a subconscious desire to regress back into this pre-natal state. It is no surprise that most dance music plays at 128 beats per minute, very similar to a healthy baby’s resting heart rate.

Music is central to emotional regulation. We are receptive to driving rhythms and soaring melodies even before birth. While, of course, music is not a magic solution to mental health issues, it is a key part of self-care, and should be implemented complementary to CBT. Music is medium of expression for difficult thoughts, an invaluable shorthand to emotion. Future treatment would do well to see its true potential. Play on

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