Picture an open road before you, the breeze flowing in through open windows as you turn the volume knob up on the tunes to drown out your thoughts.
Maybe your favorite song comes on, and suddenly you’re inspired to see the world with fresh eyes. Or perhaps a nostalgic song comes on that reminds you of a difficult time in your life. You may shed a tear, or even experience old feelings you didn’t know were still inside.
Music—particularly the way it mirrors emotion and provides cathartic opportunities to release feelings—is no doubt medicinal. Why else do we put our favorite songs on loop, or spend hours putting together the perfect Spotify playlist to turn up at the next house party?
Whether acting as a social lubricant, a rallying cry, a victory song or a classic tear-jerker, music is like a friend through every stage of life we’re in. And yet, we know so little about why music has the effect on us that it does. All we know is that this stuff really works.
Here are a few ways that scientists, artists and therapists all agree that music benefits our mental health.
It helps us express the inexpressible
Ten-time Golden Globe nominee Johnny Depp once said, “music touches us emotionally where words alone can't.” This quote says a lot, coming from someone who accesses and expresses emotions on screen for a living.
It’s true that music touches us. Yet, more therapeutically, it helps us process thoughts, feelings and experiences that are so much to take in that words fall flat. Music can therefore help us express big feelings of loss, grief, shame, longing, love, joy and celebration. One study even pointed to music as a vehicle that people with schizophrenia can use to communicate and understand issues for which words are inadequate.
Expression has a few layers: First, there’s the chords, the rhythm, the notes and melody. Sounds alone can articulate a mood or even tell a story. However, the lyrics are also powerful, too. Those who’ve ever felt alone before listening to a song that explains exactly how they feel may know the power of well-written lyrics.
Over time, hearing creative ways to express our thoughts and feelings can lead to better emotional intelligence, including an improved ability to self-regulate behaviors.
It merges both ‘halves’ of the brain
It’s easy to assume that music, full of feeling and emotion, is just for right-brained people. But in fact, music has very logical, mathematical aspects to it.
Every song has a distinct combination of notes and chords broken down into seconds and beats on the page. A good musician, or even anyone bobbing their head to the rhythm of a song, combines that orderly structure with a felt experience of rhythm. A song can’t have structure without feeling; but if it’s all feeling, it would just be a jumble of notes without a verse, chorus or bridge.
Both listening to and creating songs helps music lovers—whether we realize it or not–merge the rational parts of our brains with emotion and intuition so we may experience life as whole beings. Not only does this make us simply feel better, but some studies suggest music can improve cognitive performance, enhance memory, and facilitate faster foreign language learning.
It motivates us to be better
In a 2010 study, music was shown to improve cycling performance in 12 healthy male students. The results suggested that faster-paced music can increase performance and speed, compared to slower-tempo songs.
As social creatures, we tend to match, or at least be influenced by, the environment around us. If you’ve ever turned on a cleaning playlist when you needed to motivate yourself to do chores, or picked upbeat songs for your morning run, you probably know this to your core.
Finally, music motivates by helping to release feel-good hormones in the brain and body. So the next time you hear someone say music is their “drug,” they aren’t exactly 100% wrong. But unlike addictive drugs such as alcohol, nicotine and narcotics, the positive effects of music come with virtually no side effects (other than, perhaps, distracting your roommates).