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The importance of music for mental health


The importance of music for mental health

Have you ever felt happier after listening to music, playing an instrument, singing a song or dancing along to your favourite tunes? Interacting with music can have significant benefits for both your physical and mental health, meaning music can play an important role in your well-being.

In this article, Professor Gilles Comeau, Director of the University of Ottawa’s Music and Health Research Institute (MHRI) and of the Music and Mental Health Research Clinic at The Royal, shares his belief in the power of music for improving health and well-being, and the importance of everyone having access to these opportunities.

The mental health benefits of music

“Participating in musical activities can help cognitive function, reduce the risk of developing mental illnesses and reduce the severity of existing mental health conditions,” explains Gilles. Engaging with music triggers the release of dopamine, the ‘feel-good’ hormone that elicits feelings of pleasure and reward. This means that whether listening to your favourite band through your headphones while traveling on the bus, strumming to yourself on the guitar or singing in the shower, all forms of musical engagement are hugely beneficial.

However, while these individual interactions with music can boost your mood and cause noticeable benefits to your mental health, combining music interactions with social interactions provides extra advantages. Playing an instrument in an orchestra, singing in a choir, starting a band with fellow musicians or attending a concert with friends all enhance the mental health benefits of music, thanks to the addition of other people and the social interactions they bring. Gilles describes collective music-making as a form of social cohesion that has the power to connect people, providing the additional benefits of promoting friendships and increasing social connectivity.

Other health benefits of music

Playing an instrument requires concentration and coordination and can be considered an ‘exercise for the brain’. It can also improve lung function, posture and fitness, as can singing and dancing along to music. Research has demonstrated that music participation involving movement is especially impactful for improving physical and mental health.

In his work at the MHRI, Gilles is using a method of interactive music education called Dalcroze Eurythmics, which focuses on body movements to music, to improve the well-being of people with a range of physical and mental health conditions. “A typical class involves participants moving to music, using a mix of improvised movements alternating with structured, choreographed rhythmic sequences, and sometimes featuring props such as balls or hoops,” explains Gilles. “Musical activities that involve movement build strength and motor control. The dual tasks of listening to music and translating what is heard into movement have benefits to physical and cognitive health.”

Improving music inclusivity and accessibility

Gilles is determined that everyone has the opportunity to engage with music and benefit from musical interactions. Unfortunately, this is not yet the case. “People with mental health issues, physical limitations or cognitive impairments often experience an unwelcome reception when trying to involve themselves in musical activities,” says Gilles.

For example, people who are neurodiverse can feel unwelcome at concerts, because they might express themselves in ways that other audience members might consider inappropriate. The designs of many musical instruments assume that the player has good dexterity and motor control in two hands, and instruments and music lessons often do not accommodate anyone who does not fit in this category. And while many music venues have the option of step-free access to the auditorium, this does not mean they also have accessible access to the stage for performers with disabilities.

Removing these barriers is incredibly important, as everyone has the right to interact with music. This is not just about improving the well-being of individuals; it is also supporting a fundamental human right. “The Human Rights Act emphasises the need to provide equal opportunities for engagement in the arts,” says Gilles. “That means all people should have the chance to foster their artistic aspirations and take advantage of the health benefits of music participation.”

“Interestingly, sport is widely recognised as an important platform for inclusion and well-being for people with impairments,” notes Gilles. “Sport has played a key role in advancing equity, through programmes such as the Paralympic Games. However, nothing similar exists for music, despite music being arguably just as universal and as important for health and well-being. I hope to see music-making positioned in a similar way.”

A focus on community-based music for health and well-being

From 21st to 24th May, the MHRI is hosting a conference focused on how community-based music programmes improve health and well-being. This multidisciplinary event will bring together researchers and practitioners from a wide range of fields, including music education, psychology, social sciences, neuroscience and health sciences, to explore how the power of music can be harnessed for improving health and well-being. People with lived experiences of using music to improve health and well-being will also share their stories.

“By creating a rich environment that combines science and art, theory and practice, this event aims to be a catalyst for the development of strong research on community-based music, health and well-being,” says Gilles. Talks will include topics such as ‘How to improve therapeutic efficacy of music interventions in depression and anxiety’, ‘Implementation of a music and movement program in a geriatric unit’, ‘Co-designing a neurodiverse children’s choir’ and ‘Approaches to music training for persons with hearing loss’.

The conference will showcase the work of Canadian organisations that are leading the way in promoting music accessibility and inclusivity. Xenia Concerts performs autism-friendly concerts in which audience members are encouraged to engage with the music in whichever ways they prefer; the Lotus Centre for Special Music Education provides music lessons that are tailored and adapted to the unique needs of each individual learner, allowing all children to embrace the joy of learning to play a musical instrument; and ArtsAbly aims to make the arts accessible for all by supporting artists and art venues to ensure they can accommodate everyone. The conference will also include workshops to demonstrate practical ways to link music and health through community-based programmes.

Gilles and his colleagues hope this conference will encourage researchers, music educators and healthcare professionals to promote music as a tool for improving physical and mental health. How could you use music to improve your well-being?

The post The importance of music for mental health appeared first on Futurum.



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