Music is an integral part of day-to-day life. It is present in all human cultures across people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds. But beyond its purpose as entertainment, music can serve as self-expression, stress relief, and even therapy.

For years, researchers have attempted to uncover the complex effects of music on the brain. While much remains unknown, they have discovered a few major ways that music impacts mental health.

Music Makes People Happy

Triggering of the brain's pleasure centers is one of the first events that happens when we hear music. These areas release dopamine, which, among its effects, makes us happier. In fact, the brain responds to music so quickly that it can even predict the most pleasurable moments in familiar songs and release dopamine early.

Many experts advise listening to happy music to help fight issues like depression.

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Alleviate Stress

Beyond making people happy, music can also calm extreme feelings. Many studies have tested the effects of music participants’ cortisol levels during laboratory stressors.

Cortisol is a steroid that the body releases in response to stress. Under typical circumstances, more cortisol indicates more stress. The findings overwhelmingly show that listening to music limits cortisol activity and levels.

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Build A Sense of Identity

Many people associate genres like heavy metal with violence, disturbing imagery, and a medley of other stereotypes, thanks to their dramatic instrumentals and brash lyrics. However, heavy metal may just be one of the best genres for improving mental well-being.

A survey of hundreds of self-identified metal fans and musicians showed that heavy metal listeners tended to be happier than people who did not listen to metal. Additionally, participants had a strong sense of identity and community thanks to their participation in the metal scene, which experts suggest protected them from common childhood negative outcomes, like low self-esteem.

man listening to music outdoors


Rap Can Fight Depression

As Drake famously said, “Started from the bottom, now we here.” Evidence suggests that this mentality, which is incredibly prevalent in rap, actively helps listeners fight issues like depression and anxiety.

Rap songs often tell stories about beating the odds, overcoming adversity, and generally moving up in the world. These positive narratives help fans envision a positive place they would like to reach, which also enables them to progress toward that goal.

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Work Out Harder and Find Motivation

Hitting shuffle on a workout playlist is a common part of many people’s days, but does it serve a purpose? Researchers have found that fast-paced music motivated listeners to work out harder.

When testing cyclists, faster music led to more distance, higher pedaling speeds, and more power. This boost also translates to other areas, so fast-paced music may be the best choice when needing a little extra motivation for any project.

man with headphones running in the gym Prostock-Studio / Getty Images


Boost Creativity

Throwing on music in the background while working on a project is one of the best ways to get a noticeable boost in creativity and productivity — as long as it’s at the right volume.

Moderate volume is the sweet spot for creativity because it is the perfect noise level for increasing processing difficulty. The brain is managing sound stimuli on top of everything else, and so we begin to use more abstract processing and receive a notable jump in creativity as a result.

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Cope With Grief and Anxiety

A 2019 study focused on people who had lost a loved one in the last five years but had not pursued treatments like medication or therapy.

Researchers had half of the participants join a choir meeting for 90 minutes a week over 12 weeks. After the study, the choir group had more stable depression symptoms and reported feeling more positive about their losses. They also showed increases in self-esteem and self-efficacy.

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See Things More Positively

Music has tremendous potential as a mental health aid beyond its effects on stress and other issues. Studies have shown that listening to music can impact how we perceive emotions, words, and objects.

Listening to happy, positive music causes a person to view interactions with their environment and other people more positively. For people who regularly have a negative outlook, listening to happy music may allow them to adjust this perspective.

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Music Helps Other Treatments

Music’s effects on conditions like depression are clear. Because of this, many mental health professionals have chosen to incorporate music into their treatment plans, alongside more traditional interventions like medications and therapy.

Some of the ways they have done this is with singing, listening to music, and music therapy. Adding these interventions showed dramatic mental health improvements in a range of conditions.

Sick woman in wireless headphones lying on the bed and enjoying the music during musical therapy while being treated shironosov / Getty Images


Music Rivals Meditation and Exercise

Across mental health research, meditation and exercise regularly appear as some of the best ways to improve mental well-being, thanks to effects like lowering cortisol levels and releasing endorphins.

Music achieves a similar result and some studies even suggest that the effects are comparable across all three interventions. However, listening to music is often easier to practice and doesn't face the same time and financial barriers as meditation and exercise, so it is far more accessible to people of all demographics.

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