Why Music & Singing Is So Good for Mental Health

old man sitting by the roof holding a guitar. gratitude music and well being concept.

Not a day passes when most people around the world will not hear some music.

Many people are of course making music too. We instinctively know it is so good for the mind, body, and soul.

But why is this – and can it really help our emotional well-being and mental health?

The power of words

Music and singing are everywhere. In fact, Chorus America – “a community of colleagues who care about choral music” – states that more than 42 million Americans sing in choruses

Considering all the other ways to sing, we can see that singing is something that humans do in abundance and with great enthusiasm. Music education is a key part of the school curriculum for millions of children, not just in the US but around the world as well.

Music gives us such strong emotions. Its psychological effects can be powerful.

We only have to see how it is used in movies and advertisements so much and so effectively. Sometimes when we feel a certain negative way, we will instinctively turn to play some music or put on a chosen track as we know it will positively change the way we feel.

When words are added in the form of the music’s lyrics, it gets even more powerful. That’s because words alone are powerful.

For instance, many therapists will challenge their clients as to what language they are using about themselves. This includes how we are thinking.

In this context, it is very revealing to learn that the word “devil” derives from a word meaning “slanderer”. Many people who are struggling emotionally and mentally are slandering themselves in their minds, sometimes almost relentlessly.

So our words have great power that should never be underestimated. Our ancestors were all too aware of this – for instance, as the Bible puts it: “For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he.”

Music and singing as therapy

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Music and singing as a form of therapy are proving increasingly popular. Music particularly is used in meditation sessions as well as to aid sleep in people with sleep problems.

Music therapy has become established over the past few decades as a proven effective method for treating anxiety, stress, and depression. A study by neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis-Hodgson of Mindlab International independent research consultancy showed that classical, instrumental, and ambient music can reduce anxiety by up to 65 percent.

Music and singing combined have excellent benefits. But either one of these alone – singing or making music or even just listening to music – can also tremendously help.

A 2018 study carried out in the UK looked at 20 people in a singing program called the Sing Your Heart Out (SYHO) project. Those studied included people with mental health problems. 

Researchers discovered that all of these people taking part in the singing program reported mental health, mood, and well-being improvements as well as feeling a strong sense of belonging. This study was published in the Medical Humanities journal with the conclusion that: “The SYHO model offers a low-commitment, low-cost tool for mental health recovery within the community.”

“Singing is a beautiful way to connect to emotions,” explains voice expression coach Malou Swart. “The voice is a great symbol that shows whether we have learned or dared to express ourselves authentically and freely.

“For instance, many people dare only to sing under the shower – but do not experience a sense of safety to sing with others around. So this is a beautiful terrain to be explored. 

“Can you allow and accept your feelings? How would you express them by using your voice? Have we been told we cannot sing, which is actually impossible? Have we been hurt in the past? 

“It is more than okay to let yourself be heard, to express yourself. That is in fact a basic need.

“It is not about sounding perfect, but about being authentic. This acceptance is restorative, empowering, and extremely healing.”

Other research from the UK discovered that group singing improves anxiety and even helps people who are coping with grief. Dr. Daisy Fancourt and colleagues at University College London’s Department of Behavioural Science and Health looked at 58 adults bereaved in the past five years.

None of the participants had started psychological therapy in the previous 12 weeks. Neither had they taken any medication for anxiety or depression in the last month.

Half of them sang and socialized with a choir for 90 minutes each week. After 24 weeks the choir group had more stable depression symptoms with improved self-esteem and general well-being.

But those in the other group had gradual increases in their depression and showed lower levels of well-being and self-esteem. This 2019 study was published in the BMJ Supportive & Palliative Care.

A chemical release

woman listening to music

In fact, singing has been shown in another study to improve our sense of well-being and overall happiness. Singing and making or listening to music causes us to release the body’s “feel-good” chemicals.

This includes serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. The rhythm of the music matching our own body’s heartbeat is part of the reason for this.

It is all simply something that is innate in humans. We have always sung and made musical sounds.

Our very first ancestors would have most likely been drumming something and chanting along. Consider that the world’s oldest discovered bone flute is 40,000 years old…

So we need to make music, listen to it, and sing for our well-being. Singing is also a great exercise for the brain.

Learning and singing new songs is stimulating. To recall lyrics helps with memory.

In the UK, Alzheimer’s disease support charity Alzheimer’s Society even has a “Singing for the Brain” program. This is specifically to help people with dementia.

A University of Helsinki study in Finland that was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal PLOS One in 2021 found that adults aged more than 60 years old who participated in a choir had higher verbal functioning than those who didn’t participate. 

Singing has proven physical benefits too. It is known to improve posture, decrease muscle tension and improve breathing as it works the lungs and gives us a stronger diaphragm. Making music is also physically beneficial for us, especially playing drums.

Singing is an immune booster

Music and singing also help to maintain a healthy immune system. It does this because it reduces our stress hormone cortisol as well as gives a boost to immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays an important role in our immune function.

Researchers in Germany tested the saliva of choir members before and after an hour-long rehearsal singing Mozart’s “Requiem”. Their research discovered the singers had a greater amount of immunoglobulin A after their rehearsal.

The fact that it also stimulates the circulation of oxygen around us is also a physical positive. Oxygen’s main function is to provide the body with energy.

Singing is a great stress buster – and that’s for nearly all of us because nearly all of us can sing. It can be seen as one of our natural antidepressants.

Research in 2015 published in the Royal Society Open Science journal stated: “Singing is found in all human societies and can be performed to some extent by the vast majority of humans: singing is a universal human behavioral capacity, and this implies that it could have arisen as an evolutionary adaptation.

“Overall, the universal nature of human singing and its consistent association with social behavior suggests that it could have evolved as a mechanism of bonding social groups.

“Our results indicate that compared with individuals participating in craft or creative writing classes, singers experience a greater increase in both self-reported closeness to their group and positive affect.”

Group therapy

extraversion - group of friends having fun

When singing is part of a group, it only increases the feel-good factor associated with it. Likewise when music is made collectively.

This is because of the strong feeling of connection. This is once again something that every human being needs – to feel connected.

It is often said: the opposite of addiction is connection. In fact, every mental health problem gives some feeling of being disconnected.

This is why reconnecting is a huge part of many people’s recovery. It is one reason why, for instance, the Twelve Steps recovery group meetings have proven so effective for more than 80 years in helping people: they give an immense feeling of connection.

In actual fact, it is the same at a music concert or festival; a baseball or soccer stadium; and in a religious center such as a church, synagogue, or mosque.

As well, group singing or music-making with others improves our social networks. This is especially important in today’s modern world, where so many social interactions are through social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

It is an effective way to beat loneliness in this modern world – where we are more connected than ever, but also where a great many people have less face-to-face contact than in previous generations.

Singing is good for the soul

So while there is not an obvious link between a loud raucous baseball crowd and a small village church congregation, there is the connection that people have come together – and many of them are singing in some way. 

Although the singing at a sports stadium might sound vastly different from at a church, the feeling from singing – as well as to those listening in both cases – is the same. It is uplifting and creates a feeling of connection.

“Singing allows someone to become free,” says professional singer Georgie Cullum. “It’s the expression of the inner self and the soul, which spends too much of its time restrained and contained.”

This is why we should sing and listen to music as much as possible. Singing and music is a completely positive whole-body experience.

Our friendly experienced team has treated people with all emotional issues and types of mental health problems.

Call us today to have a chat about how we can help you or someone you love.

David Hurst - Tikvah Lake Recovery

About David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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