In 2000, archaeologists excavating a cave in southern Germany uncovered a flute carved from a vulture’s wing bone. The delicate artifact is the oldest known musical instrument on earth — indicating that people have been making music for over 40,000 years.
Although we can’t be sure exactly when human beings began listening to music, scientists do know something about why we do. Listening to music benefits us individually and collectively. Here’s what research tells us about the power of music to improve our physical, mental, and emotional health.
Music connects us
Researchers Trusted Source think one of the most important functions of music is to create a feeling of cohesion or social connectedness.
Evolutionary scientists say human beings may have developed a dependence on music as a communication tool because our ancestors descended from arboreal species — tree-dwellers who called to one another across the canopy.
Music remains a powerful way of uniting people:
- national anthems connect crowds at sporting events
- protest songs stir a sense of shared purpose during marches
- hymns build group identity in houses of worship
- love songs help prospective partners bond during courtship
- lullabies enable parents and infants to develop secure attachments
How, then, does music benefit us as individuals?
It can lead to better learning
Doctors at Johns Hopkins recommend that you listen to music to stimulate your brain. Scientists know that listening to music engages your brain — they can see the active areas light up in MRI scans.
Researchers now know that just the promise of listening to music can make you want to learn more. In one 2019 study, people were more motivated to learn when they expected to listen to a song as their reward.
Listening has limits
A note of caution: You may want to withhold the earbuds for some students. ResearchersTrusted Source who tested students with lower working memory capacity found that listening to music — especially songs with lyrics — sometimes had a negative effect on learning.
It can improve memory
Music also has a positive effect on your ability to memorize.
In one studyTrusted Source, researchers gave people tasks that required them to read and then recall short lists of words. Those who were listening to classical music outperformed those who worked in silence or with white noise.
The same study tracked how fast people could perform simple processing tasks — matching numbers to geometrical shapes — and a similar benefit showed up. Mozart helped people complete the task faster and more accurately.
Mayo Clinic points out that while music doesn’t reverse the memory loss experienced by people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, music has been found to slow cognitive declineTrusted Source, helping people with mild or moderate dementia remember episodes from their lives.
Music memory is one of the brain functions most resistant to dementia. That’s why some caregivers have had success using music to calm dementia patients and build trusting connections with them.
It can help treat mental illness
Music literally changes the brain. Neurological researchers have found that listening to music triggers the release of several neurochemicals that play a role in brain function and mental health:
- dopamine, a chemical associated with pleasure and “reward” centers
- stress hormones like cortisol
- serotonin and other hormones related to immunity
- oxytocin, a chemical that fosters the ability to connect to others
Although more research needs to be done to understand precisely how music can be used therapeutically to treat mental illness, some studiesTrusted Source suggest that music therapy can improve the quality of life and social connectedness for people with schizophrenia.
A number of researchersTrusted Source have interviewed groups about why they listen to music. Study participants vary widely in terms of age, gender, and background, but they report strikingly similar reasons.
It can help lower anxiety
There’s lots of evidence that listening to music can help calm you in situations where you might feel anxious.
StudiesTrusted Source have shown that people in rehab after a stroke are more relaxed once they’ve listened to music for an hour.
There’s conflicting evidence about whether listening to music has an effect on your body’s physiological stress response, however. One studyTrusted Source indicated that the body releases less cortisol, a stress hormone, when people listen to music. This same study referenced previous research stating that music had little measurable effect on cortisol levels.
One recent studyTrusted Source that measured several indicators of stress (not just cortisol) concluded that while listening to music before a stressful event doesn’t reduce anxiety, listening to relaxing music after a stressful event can help your nervous system recover faster.
It helps the symptoms of depression
A 2017 research reviewTrusted Source concluded that listening to music, particularly classical combined with jazz, had a positive effect on depression symptoms, especially when there were several listening sessions conducted by board certified music therapists.
Not into jazz or the classics? You may want to try a group percussion session instead. The same research review found that drum circles also had above-average benefits for people dealing with depression.
Musical genre matters for depression
One important note: StudiesTrusted Source have found that nostalgic sad tunes can actually increase symptoms of depression, especially if you tend to ruminate or withdraw socially. Not surprising, perhaps, but important to know if you want to use music to counteract the blues.
Music’s effects on the body
It can help your heart health
Music can make you want to move — and the benefits of dancing are well documented. Scientists also know that listening to music can alterTrusted Source your breath rate, your heart rate, and your blood pressure, depending on the music’s intensity and tempo.
It decreases fatigue
Anyone who has ever rolled down car windows and turned up the radio knows that music can be energizing. There’s solid science behind that lived experience.
In 2015, researchersTrusted Source at Shanghai University found that relaxing music helped reduce fatigue and maintain muscle endurance when people were engaged in a repetitive task.
Music therapy sessions also lessened fatigue in people receiving cancer treatments and raised the fatigue threshold for people engaged in demanding neuromuscular training, which leads us to the next big benefit.
It boosts exercise performance
Exercise enthusiasts have long known that music enhances their physical performance.
A 2020 research review confirms that working out with music improves your mood, helps your body exercise more efficiently, and cuts down on your awareness of exertion. Working out with music also leads to longer workoutsTrusted Source.
In clinical settings, athletes who listened to high-intensity, fast music during warmups were motivatedTrusted Source to perform better competitively.
You don’t have to be a world-class competitor to benefit: ResearchTrusted Source shows that syncing your workout to music can allow you to reach peak performance using less oxygen than if you did the same workout without the beat. Music acts as a metronome in your body, researchers said.
It can help manage pain
Specially trained music therapists use music to help alleviate pain in inpatient and outpatient settings. A 2016 meta-analysisTrusted Source of over 90 studies reported that music helps people manage both acute and chronic pain better than medication alone.
About music therapy
The American Music Therapy Association describes music therapy as the use of music in hospitals, outpatient clinics, rehab clinics, nursing homes, schools, correctional facilities, and substance use programs to help meet the medical, physical, emotional, and cognitive needs of patients. To find a board- certified music therapist in your area, check this registry.
Music exerts a powerful influence on human beings. It can boost memory, build task endurance, lighten your mood, reduce anxiety and depression, stave off fatigue, improve your response to pain, and help you work out more effectively.
Working with a music therapist is one effective way to take advantage of the many benefits music can have on your body, mind, and overall health.