Not a Freudian Slip: The Magic of Music on Health

Contributor: Connie Mester, MPH 
To learn more about Connie, click here.


image001.pngSitting at a traffic light blaring a song as loud as my ears would tolerate, I laughed at the sight of my reflection in the rearview mirror, singing each word as if I were the one on stage performing.  My anger melted away as I jammed out to Can’t Stop the Feeling! Then I began to wonder, did this song transport me momentarily to a space that erased the frustration I was carrying from an earlier disagreement with my co-worker? Can music lift me out of a funk?  

With these questions orbiting around my mind, I began to question the impact music has on our emotions, our mind, or our mood.  Knowing our emotions and thoughts are a major part of our health and healing, I wanted to dig deeper in hopes of uncovering meaningful insight for my professional and personal quest toward health and happiness.

7_dimensions.pngWhen thinking about health I tend to view it across a spectrum of seven dimensions, not simply as the absence of disease.  Similarly, for this investigation, I began to explore what the literature reveals about music and health. Not surprising is the evidence on music’s positive impact on our overall health and quality of life. What is surprising is the limited use of music in mainstream healthcare interventions or as a critical requirement in education. 

This article briefly reviews how music positively impacts all seven dimensions of health. It closes with considerations on how to infuse the transformational power of music into our communities and into our lives.  

What if I told you there was a therapy that had the capability of making a significant, positive impact to healing and health outcomes? And that this intervention or treatment had no side effects, was inexpensive, in some cases even free, and repeatedly proven effective?  That would be music to your ears – right? Similarly, what if I shared evidence demonstrating that one particular subject has the transformational power to enhance emotional and cognitive development and functioning greater than any other subject in school?  Would you make a recommendation for or against the removal of this critical element from the curriculum within our education system?

Most of us would agree that, overall, music enhances our everyday life.  Music has been shown to improve cognitive development, provide solid therapeutic value across multiple diseases and illnesses, restore function, unify a community, and is one of the strongest mood regulators available. 1-3

Music changes our brain in profound ways.  There is an entire body of research that demonstrates music’s impact on intelligence and learning.4,5  Increased language and communication skills, enhanced memory and performance, as well as expanded creativity and imagination are valuable effects music can have on school children and adults alike.6  

Research findings continue to support anecdotal observations that music can drastically impact an individual’s self-confidence and overall psychological well-being.7  And further, music listening and music making encourages social cohesion and cooperation,8 a benefit I got to see firsthand as I visited The Sanctuary Studio at Stove Top Entertainment in Raleigh, NC - a community of diverse strangers, brought together through the power of music to maximize the creative freedom of musicians and lyricists.  Their Founder and CEO, Craig Anderson, describes the experience: “ We’ve seen a multitude of people come through our little studio in Raleigh with their own confidence issues, emotional baggage, addictions, bad associations, and all levels of mental health issues. We focus on making sure artists go into their ‘creative zone’ by removing the mental, social, and societal obstacles. Basically, we provide a supportive atmosphere that trains and encourages their creative brains to get out on the playground for a while. We’ve seen mothers reuniting with children they previously weren’t allowed to see, young men constructively earning the respect and validation they seek rather than demanding it through violence, and corporate warriors who do nothing but follow processes find life’s meaning again... It’s been wonderful to see these effects of music so clearly on who we are and how we perceive the world.”



Our society is facing many health challenges.  Between the opioid addiction epidemic, increasing rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide, and complex health conditions which are multiplying, alternative solutions to healing and relief have to be explored. This need is especially clear as these become exacerbated by a growing elderly population with increased isolation and co-morbid chronic conditions. 

Music has been shown to motivate people to participate in health interventions and adhere to treatment recommendations.9  People undergoing medical treatment can ameliorate negative symptoms across a variety of settings and specialties such as palliative care, intensive care, obstetrics, pediatrics, geriatrics, ophthalmology, and neurology.7 Research has shown through music people undergoing cancer treatment can have reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.10  Further, individuals with dementia, Parkinson’s, and degenerative diseases have had significant positive health impacts through non-invasive and economically viable music interventions.11,12

Could a focus on music interventions be the game changer needed in the battle against the opioid addiction? Studies have proven the rehabilitative nature of music to promote relaxation (reducing anxiety), ignite cheerfulness (decreasing depressive feelings), and improve comfort and pain tolerance (decreasing pain intensity).  Numerous studies reveal how music therapy is an effective, non-pharmacological approach for post-operative pain management, helping people feel more control over their chronic pain.10  

Have you ever noticed music playing as you’re walking around a shopping center?  What if the benefits of music were used to ignite creativity and motivate productivity versus stimulating the economy by changing your state of mind to be inclined to purchase more?  Unique radio service Silver Memories program uses music to trigger nostalgic memories by broadcasting music from the 20’s to the 50’s, resulting in a positive impact on well-being, morale, behavior, and relaxation.13 Weaving music into our environment, our workplace, our home, and surroundings enables us to harness positive emotions and maximize cognitive functioning to foster social interactions and interpersonal relationships.2,3 

With a personal story describing a recent and relevant example combined with all the evidence demonstrating that music has transformational powers, a few basic questions deserve consideration. Why is music the first program cut in schools? Why is it extremely limited in mainstream healthcare? Shouldn’t something with such impact and influence, that is proven effective, accessible, and inexpensive, be incorporated into first-line treatment, as well as expanded in academia, not the opposite? 

There’s a quest throughout the healthcare space to deliver real, measurable, and tangible positive effects on patient engagement, experience, and outcomes. This includes people and companies developing products like apps that help people mindfully reduce stress, brain training programs meant to improve memory and attention, self-help books on mood regulation and emotional intelligence, pharmaceuticals indicated to reduce anxiety, and healthcare professionals and clinicians providing services. Each one is seeking the magic pill to improve health and quality of life, not yet realizing that the answer might be both simpler and more enjoyable than they are envisioning. 

In the follow up article we’ll explore proven educational and therapeutic applications of music in hopes of promoting each reader to be compelled to weave more music into their practice, their classroom, and their everyday life.  As pianist James Rhodes said, “Music is where the magic happens.” And who doesn’t want a little more magic as part of the way they heal, or the way they learn, or as a catalyst to all the beautiful benefits music can bring to the rhythm of life?  This exploration has certainly inspired me to seek out pleasurable experiences and test these positive research findings personally.

Contact Connie at:
[email protected]


  1. Tong Y, Forreider B, Sun X, Geng X, Zhang W, Du H, Zhang T and Ding Y (2015). Music-supported therapy (MST) in improving post-stroke patients’ upper-limb motor function: a randomised controlled pilot study, Neurological Research, 37:5, 434-440.   
  2. Tarr B, Launay J, and Dunbar RIM (2014). Music and social bonding: “self-other” merging and neurohormonal mechanisms. Frontiers in Psychology, 5, 1096.
  3. Panksepp J and Bernatzky G (2002).  Emotional sounds and the brain: the neuroaffective foundations of musical appreciation. Behav Process. 60: 133-155. 
  4. Gold BP, Frank MJ, Bogert B, and Brattico E (2013). Pleasurable music affects reinforcement learning according to the listener. Frontiers in Psychology, 4, 541. 
  5. Landreth JE and Landreth F (1974). Effects of music on psychophysiological response. J Res Music Edu.  22: 4-12.
  6. Baker F and Roth EA. (2004) Neuroplasticity and functional recovery: training models and compensatory strategies in music therapy. Nordic J Music Ther 13(1):20–32. 
  7. MacDonald RA (2013). Music, health, and Well-Being: a review. Int J Wual Stud Health Well-Being. 8:20635. 
  8. Raglio A, Attardo L, Gontero G, Rollino S, Groppo E, and Granieri E (2015). Effects of music and music therapy on mood in neurological patients. World J Psychiatry. 5(1):68-78.  
  9. Hannibal N, Pedersen IN, Hestbæk T, Sørensen TE and Munk-Jørgensen P (2012). Schizophrenia and personality disorder patients’ adherence to music therapy. Nordic Journal of Psychiatry, 66:6, 376-379. 
  10. Bradt J, Dileo C, Magill L, and Teague A (2016). Music interventions for improving psychological and physical outcomes in cancer patients. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. (8):CD006911. 
  11. Kelleher AY (2001). The Beat of a Different Drummer: Music Therapy’s Role in Dementia Respite. Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 25:2, 75-84, 
  12. Moumdjian L, Sarkamo T, Leone C, Leman M and Feys P (2017).  Effectiveness of music-based interventions on motricity or cognitive functioning in neurological populations: a systematic review. Eur J Phys Rehabil Med. 53(3):466-482. 
  13. Travers C and Bartlett H (2010). An Exploratory Study of Careers and Care Staff’s Perspectives of Silver Memories — A Unique Radio Program for Older People.  Activities, Adaptation & Aging, 34:2, 135-147.