How Music Affects Mental Health

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on February 26, 2024
4 min read

If you’ve ever released stress by dancing around your room to your favorite tunes or enjoyed a good cry with the help of a touching love song, you know how powerful music can be. It can lift you up when you’re low and calm you down when you’re anxious.

Music is a powerful tool for mood regulation and stress. The best part is, it’s always available to anyone who needs it. 

Whether you’re on edge or need a boost, even just one song can bring you back to a more even and healthy place. When it comes to your mental health, music can:

Help you rest better. A study involving students found that listening to relaxing classical music at bedtime improved sleep quality. This activity was also associated with decreased signs of depression. ‌

Lift your mood. Research shows that listening to happier music can make you feel happier, especially if you try to lift your mood while listening. There’s also evidence that formal music therapy can help with depression when used alongside other therapies.

Reduce stress. If you’re feeling anxious or stressed, calming music can help to settle your mind. Several studies have shown that when people undergoing surgery hear calming music, they have lower blood pressure and need less pain medication than those who don’t listen to soothing music.

You don’t have to be preparing for surgery to calm yourself with music, though. Simply listening to music can decrease your blood pressure, lower your levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and reduce your heart rate.

Music therapists can help you find ways to use music for your mental health. This type of therapist learns how to use music-making and listening to help people understand and process their emotions. Like traditional mental health counseling, music therapy is customized to the needs of the client.

But you don't necessarily need a therapist. You can also use music on your own to improve your mental well-being:

Listen to relaxing music. The best music for stress reduction is the kind that works for you. If you’re not sure where to start, look for music that plays at about 60 beats per minute. Researchers say that this tempo is best for encouraging the alpha brainwaves that signal a relaxed and conscious mind. 

Most streaming services have meditation tracks set at this tempo. Many people also find that Celtic, Native American, and Indian string or flute music tends to have a calming effect.

Express yourself with a beat. You don’t need to be a trained musician to make music. Anyone can grab a rhythm instrument like a drum or rain stick and create beats that are mournful, angry, joyful, or excited. 

Try this music therapy technique: By yourself or with a few friends, get some rhythm instruments and create the sounds of a storm. Let the storm become more and less intense, raging for a while and then backing down to a calmer state. Create rhythms that express emotions you’ve been feeling. If you’d like you can talk about those feelings after the improvised storm has passed.

Write a song. The concept of songwriting can scare people away if they feel like the song won’t be “good.” Remember that when you use music therapeutically, it doesn’t matter what other people think of it. They never even have to hear it.

If you feel stuck, start with a song that you already know. Let the melody inspire you to write lyrics that express how you feel. Sing it into your phone and play it back. Hearing your own feelings reflected back to you is an important part of healing through music.

Create a mood playlist. If you’re feeling down, anxious, or upset, find a track that expresses how you feel. Feel those emotions and let the lyrics resonate with you. Then, gradually shift your listening choices so that the music takes you into a happier or calmer place. This is a popular technique used by music therapists.

Matching music to your current mood can feel validating, but it can also keep you stuck in a negative emotional state — if you let it. 

You can still listen to a sad song when you’re upset or let out your anger to some heavy metal. Just be mindful of where it’s taking you and shift into something different if you feel yourself getting stuck.

It’s also important to consider that while music can be a powerful tool for regulating and shifting your emotions, it's not a substitute for mental health treatment. If you have distressing emotional experiences that interfere with your ability to function, consider talking to a licensed mental health professional.