Mental Health and Music

Mental Health and Music

The rock drummer and neuroscientist, Harry Witchel is prowling the stage at an Institute for Cultural Research lecture, hunting for a test subject for his live experiment on the effects of music on
the brain. 

“You!” he yells, pointing to where I am sat in the audience. 

I join him on the stage, where he sits me down and rigs me up with wires, connecting me to a machine monitoring my heart rate, respiratory and oxygen levels.

“That’s unusual,” Dr Witchel muses.                                     

Determined not to be an easy subject, I’m working hard to stay relaxed. With plenty of experience addressing live audiences and working in the volatile environments of young offender institutes and prisons, I’m practised at staying calm under pressure. I’ve slowed my breathing down and I’m taking as long as possible to exhale.   

But Dr Harry Witchel has two secret weapons up his sleeve. A few feet away from me sit a trombonist and a French horn player from the Philharmonic Orchestra, all of us facing the audience. At the Dr’s command, the musicians begin to play and the audience, looking up to the screen behind me where they can see the sudden changes in my heart rate, respiratory and oxygen levels, gasp. Despite my best efforts I am powerless against the effects of the music as it changes my mood, emotional state and, because mind, brain and body are entwined, my physiological responses too. 

What I experienced that day, now over ten years ago, made me wonder what effect the music which surrounds us might be having on our mental health and emotional wellbeing. How many sources of music and sound are we exposed to throughout the course of the day? How often are our moods and emotions being triggered by music without us consciously being aware that it is happening, whether we have chosen what we are listening to or not? 

From the moment we wake up, we are bombarded with sound; alarm clocks wake us up; music streaming services plug directly into our brains through earplugs; dramatic music announces important information on news channels, shaping the way we see the world; the music in shops is deployed to encourage us to buy more.

And if music changes our moods and emotions then it is shaping our thinking and decision making processes too. The more emotional we become, the harder it is to think clearly and solve the problems in our lives; the more taxing it becomes to process emotions during wakefulness; and the more demand there is on the dreaming brain to discharge emotion during sleep. 

Of course if music shapes our mood, we might ask if that is a bad thing; surely we can use music to lift mood? Music can trigger and enhance feelings of pleasure, joy and happiness. Music can boost motivation and determination when working out at the gym, in an exercise class, or running in the cold. 

We share experiences when we share the feelings which music triggers too, in the gym or at exercises classes; at festivals, club nights, parties and concerts. We dance to music, fall in love to music and we bond to music; shared music tastes shape our sense of who we are and where we belong.  

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But if music can deepen mood and emotion, then perhaps, like anything else, it is open to abuse. If music arouses powerful emotions in us, we may become more susceptible to messages in music. After all, music has also been used, and is still used, to trigger feelings of passion, anger and nationalistic fervour in times of war, to align ourselves with political and religious causes, and to send people into battle to kill without conscience.   

Importantly, if we are using music to change the way that we feel, we might want to ask which unmet emotional needs may be prompting us to seek solace in music. Are we struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression? Are we missing emotional connection with others? Are we using music to remind us of when we were with others and felt part of a community? Are we using music to control feelings of stress and sadness instead of addressing causes?

Perhaps, given that music has such a power to shape our moods and emotions we need to become more aware of how and why we are using it. A sound engineer friend of mine used to describe how, when he was learning how to produce music, the tutors would have the students sit in silence with no music at all. Until the students began to really listen and become aware that everything around us is vibrating with sounds we hardly notice. Maybe we could benefit from moments without music too, just to retune without sound. Just as music has lulls, peaks and crescendos, life does too, if we are able to listen to them.

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