Music and Well-being – the science behind why we do what we do!

Emily Foulkes, Director of Music for Well-being, explores some of the research surrounding music, well-being and mental health. Our work, since 2001, has witnessed first-hand the impact of inclusive, person-centred and mental health informed music making on individuals and groups of all ages.

As we move into the next phase of our pioneering work as a charity invested in the mental health of all, we take stock of the research which underpins our ethos.

Emily is a practitioner, researcher and trainer/consultant.

“Music is uniquely efficacious in resonating with our basic emotional systems, bringing to life many affective proclivities that may be encoded, as birth rights, within ancient neural circuits constructed by our genes” (Panksepp and Bernatzy, 2002 p. 136)

We are hard-wired as musical beings. Long before we had speech, our ancestors used rhythm and melodic voices in order to thrive and survive as a species (Mithen, 2006; Brown, 2000; Fitch, 2006; Levitin, 2008). Music resonates within us to a cellular level and is the centre of what makes us human (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018).

Sharing music with others served an evolutionary purpose of holding people together (Schafer et al, 2013). It builds empathy, trust and promotes social bonding (Levitin, 2016; Seltzer, 2010). In fact, science reveals that when we sing or make music together, we become biologically entrained and our breath and heart rates align with others (Vickhoff et al, 2013). The experience can often be described as transcendental and even spiritual (Camlin et al, 2020).

Making music, particularly in a group, has a fascinating ability to promote both happiness and relaxation (Sloboda & Van Goethem, 2011; also see Fancourt, 2020) and has been shown to support all aspects of well-being (Perkins et al, 2020). Some studies suggest that engaging in arts activities can improve quality of life, increase ability to cope (resilience) and develop self-awareness (Daykin et al, 2018). Taking part in music can promote self-development, including the building of agency and self-confidence (Fancourt et al, 2020).

In our Music for Well-being work with children, young people, adults and the elderly, we see these impacts on a daily basis. In our online Singing for Mental Health during lock-down, a participant reported;

“At this particular time (COVID-19) any social interaction was welcome, however in these sessions it was helpful to realise that there are others experiencing similar or worse afflictions. Nobody is judgmental, everyone listened patiently. In my view community singing is a great human cement.” (Participant, online Singing and Mindfulness for Mental Health, Singing Clinic programme with St Austell Healthcare Social Prescribing)

The COVID-19 pandemic has seen a rise in mental health conditions (Molodynski et al, 2020) with more significant implications for those with pre-existing conditions (Fiorillo & Gorwood, 2020; Castaldelli-Maia et al, 2020; Friedman, 2013; Rajkumar, 2020). Enforced isolation can lead to a host of consequences including stress, depression, irritability, insomnia, fear, confusion, anger and boredom (Brooks et al, 2020).

We only have to cast our minds back to March 2020 when the spontaneous singing on balconies in Italy captured our hearts. “In the discontinuity created by the situation, individuals began to seek continuity.” (Corvo & De Caro, 2020, pg 247). The connecting and cementing power of music was tangible and moving. Singing or Chanting, across cultures, brings people together so that “feelings in common are expressed through actions in common” (Durkham, 1995 p.390).

As we start to emerge from this intense period of collective stress, trauma and fear, it is likely that the impact on physical, mental, emotional, social and cultural health will be ‘felt for many years to come’ (Roncaglia, 2021, p.2). It is therefore more vital than ever that the arts, and particularly music, are recognised as a safe space to explore and express emotions, mood and feelings (Dana, 2018; Fancourt 2017). Although most won’t need specialist mental health services, they will need to ‘feel supported and heard’ (Molodynski et al, 2020).

In all our work, connection and validation sits at the very core of our ethos. We know that when people feel heard and validated, it can have a profound effect (Lieberman & Torre, 2018). Relational skills and empathy are the key attributes we look for in our Music for Well-being practitioners. All our work is underpinned by trauma and mental health informed practice.

From making a connection, we can foster an environment of safety and from here, not only can creativity flourish, but also learning and cognitive abilities can be enhanced (Pentikainen et al, 2021) and well-being can be supported (Perkins et al, 2020).

For more information about how we work to specifically improve mental health and well-being, please contact us.

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