When people say music makes you feel better, they are right. For those who do not think this way (although I hardly believe that), I recommend you give it a try. I remember when sometime in 1990 right after the fall of the Soviet Union we had the chance to – legally – listen to music from the west and one of the very first songs I heard on the radio was “The Show Must Go On” by Queen. I have fallen in love with that song, even though I had no idea what the song was about, what the lyrics are about because I was just a small child with no English knowledge at all. However, the music was suspenseful and energetic, and it carried me away with it.
Wellbeing and music
The academic literature on positive emotions and wellbeing in general up until the 1980s has not produced more than 800 articles annually. (Myers & Diener, 1995) However, with the advent of Positive Psychology in the 1990’s this, fortunately, has changed for the better. A new field has emerged in the field of Psychology that reminded Cicero’s quote “There’s no fool who is happy, and no wise man who is not”.
The positive effect of music is, fortunately, gaining momentum, there is now clear evidence that music lowers anxiety, increasing mood and quality of life and it helps with coping during stressful times. (Daykin et al., 2018) An interesting study also shows the beneficial effect of music on refugees and asylum seekers, that for instance activities involving music such as singing and dancing positively affected people’s ability for developing effective emotional expression which in turn boosted self-awareness and connectedness. (Millar & Warwick, 2019). Also, music facilitates wellbeing through intra-personal factors, such as self-identity and emotional intelligence; through inter-personal factors such as socialisation and creating strong social bonds; and through agentic pathways, like helping the individual to express him or herself. (Popay & Williams, 2005)
I don’t think I will ever forget how two distant friends of mine became very close friends to me, and this was partly my “fault” and partly music’s “fault”. It was when I introduced them or rather “infected” them the wonderful music of a band, that became one of our favourites from that time on. It fascinates me how the power of music can bring people together.
Emotions and music
Researchers and psychologists have developed the concept of Subjective Wellbeing (SWB) in order to measure the individual’s life cognitively and affectively. It has been documented that usually people scoring high on SWB are more energetic, creative, sociable and more trusting. (Veenhoven, 1988)
Music is being identified as the protector of the self, or as once described as the “technology of the self” (Denora, 1999)because it has the capacity to aid emotional recognition. Moreover, it is understood that association of emotions with music will bring about emotional self-regulation. Furthermore, the positive influence of music on emotions can change mood, stress levels and cortisol levels. (Fancourt et al., 2016)
Identity and music
It was documented that music has its unique ability to positively affect self-esteem and self-identification. And throughout the history, music in society has been a powerful factor contributing to the development of cultural identity. (Rund, 1997) Strong cultural identities can buffer against stress and discrimination.
I can firmly testify this, usually, those growing up in a post-communist collectivist country with reduced possibilities to freedom of expression and increased deconstructive criticism towards those who dare “to think outside the box” had to learn to be something that I would call the “resilient rebel”. But belonging to an artistic sub-culture had a positive effect on me, the idea of belonging to people who are like me had an uplifting effect on me. Various data suggest (although debatable) that in general collectivist cultures may experience lower SWB than do individualistic cultures. (Diener et al., 1995) Nevertheless, music aided me with a kind of “emotional shield”, and it had contributed to form an identity in the face of adversity.
Health and music
Music is healthy, period! But no, don’t take my words for it. Listen to the experts, in an experimental study it was examined how the physiological processes take place between the brain and the body during a choir practice. It was shown that there was a significant increase in salivary immunoglobin A, which is an antibody agent within the immune system and significant decrease in stress hormone cortisol.(Kuhn, 2002) Likewise, the musician’s pain threshold had increased, the study shows that singing helps the body to release β-endorphins and indeed other reports illustrated an increase in oxytocin levels, which is known as the “trust hormone”, inciting prosocial behaviour. (Grape et al., 2003)
I think we all agree that having higher than average self-esteem, being optimistic, joyous, having better mood, lower levels of stress and in general having better subjective wellbeing (SWB) is desirable. And this “invisible art” as music takes no solid form, has no smell or taste, totally transparent yet it’s everywhere, is our little helper, it helps to thrive and grow. The effect of music on the physiological and psychological processes of the body, shows similarities with the traits of happy people, these individuals usually display a self-serving bias just by believing themselves to be more morally and ethically educated, to be happier, less prejudiced and better able to socialize with others. (Janoff-Bulman, 1989) We cannot change our genetics, and sometimes we cannot even change our circumstances, but there is one thing we can change and that is the person we find in the mirror. We can change our mood and we can change our way of thinking; I feel that to me music, this “invisible art” is my shield and my sword in this world.
“The aim and final end of all music should be
none other than the glory of God and the
refreshment of the soul.”
Johann Sebastian Bach
This quote sounds a bit religious, but metaphorically speaking God resembles music, simply because they are both invisible. However, I put an emphasis on “the refreshment of the soul” expression, music indeed can be very refreshing and numerous studies support this, in fact, the psychological benefits of music proved to be good enough that over time a new area has been developed in the field of psychotherapy and that is music therapy.
Daykin, N., Mansfield, L., Meads, C., Julier, G., Tomlinson, A., Payne, A., Grigsby Duffy, L., Lane, J., D’Innocenzo, G., Burnett, A., Kay, T., Dolan, P., Testoni, S., & Victor, C. (2018). What works for wellbeing? A systematic review of wellbeing outcomes for music and singing in adults. In Perspectives in Public Health (Vol. 138, Issue 1). https://doi.org/10.1177/1757913917740391
Denora, T. (1999). Music as a technology of the self. Poetics, 27(1). https://doi.org/10.1016/S0304-422X(99)00017-0
Diener, E., Suh, E. M., Smith, H., & Shao, L. (1995). National differences in reported subjective well-being: Why do they occur? Social Indicators Research, 34(1). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01078966
Fancourt, D., Williamon, A., Carvalho, L. A., Steptoe, A., Dow, R., & Lewis, I. (2016). Singing modulates mood, stress, cortisol, cytokine and neuropeptide activity in cancer patients and carers. Ecancermedicalscience, 10. https://doi.org/10.3332/ecancer.2016.631
Grape, C., Sandoren, M., Hansson, L. O., Ericson, M., & Theorell, T. (2003). Does Singing Promote Well-Being?: An Empirical Study of Professional and Amateur Singers during a Singing Lesson. Integrative Physiological and Behavioral Science, 38(2). https://doi.org/10.1007/bf02734261
Janoff-Bulman, R. (1989). The Benefits of Illusions, the Threat of Disillusionment, and the Limitations of Inaccuracy. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8(2). https://doi.org/10.1521/jscp.19126.96.36.199
Kuhn, D. (2002). The effects of active and passive participation in musical activity on the immune system as measured by salivary immunoglobulin a (SIgA). Journal of Music Therapy, 39(1). https://doi.org/10.1093/jmt/39.1.30
Millar, O., & Warwick, I. (2019). Music and refugees’ wellbeing in contexts of protracted displacement. Health Education Journal, 78(1). https://doi.org/10.1177/0017896918785991
Myers, D. G., & Diener, E. (1995). WHO IS HAPPY? Psychological Science, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9280.1995.tb00298.x
Popay, J., & Williams, F. (2005). Balancing polarities: Developing a new framework for welfare research. In Welfare Research: A Critical Review. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203979365-19
Rund, E. (1997). Music and identity. Nordisk Tidsskrift for Musikkterapi, 6(1). https://doi.org/10.1080/08098139709477889
Veenhoven, R. (1988). The utility of happiness. Social Indicators Research, 20(4). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00302332
About Roland Majla: Hi, my name is Roland, a student at Buckinghamshire New University studying Applied Positive Psychology MSc and I am from the enchanted land of Transylvania. Yes, this mythical place from Bram Stoker’s book actually exists. And I am a hopeful, travel and music-loving individual on a hunting journey, yes “hunting” for positivity on the land, air and sea, and then offering the “prey” for the hungry hearts and minds out there.
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’