Table of Contents

music and health

Mental and substance use disorders have been identified as the leading cause of global disability, and the global burden of mental illness is concentrated among those experiencing disability due to serious mental illness (SMI). Music has been studied as a support for SMIs for decades, with promising results; however, a lack of synthesized evidence has precluded increased uptake of and access to music-based approaches. The purpose of this scoping review was to identify the types and quantity of research at intersections of music and SMIs, document evidentiary gaps and opportunities, and generate recommendations for improving research and practice. Studies were included if they reported on music’s utilization in treating or mitigating symptoms related to five SMIs: schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder. Eight databases were searched; screening resulted in 349 included studies for data extraction. Schizophrenia was the most studied SMI, with bipolar disorder studied the least. Demographics, settings, and activity details were found to be inconsistently and insufficiently reported; however, listening to recorded music emerged as the most common musical activity, and activity details appeared to have been affected by the conditions under study. RCTs were the predominant study design, and 271 unique measures were utilized across 289 primary studies. Over two-thirds of primary studies (68.5%) reported positive results, with 2.8% reporting worse results than the comparator, and 12% producing indeterminate results. A key finding is that evidence synthesis is precluded by insufficient reporting, widely varied outcomes and measures, and intervention complexity; as a result, widespread changes are necessary to reduce heterogeneity (as feasible), increase replicability and transferability, and improve understandings of mechanisms and causal pathways

Research shows that music can have a beneficial effect on brain chemicals such as dopamine, which is linked to feelings of pleasure, and oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone.” And there is moderate evidence that music can help lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

The report also includes findings from the 2020 AARP Music and Brain Health Survey, a nationally representative survey of 3,185 adults that found that listening to music — whether in the background, by focused listening to recordings or at musical performances — had a small positive impact on mental well-being, depression and anxiety.

“Especially now, in times when people are feeling sad, stressed and isolated because of the COVID-19 pandemic, people should definitely turn to music to better their mental well-being,” says GCBH Executive Director Sarah Lenz Lock, AARP’s senior vice president for policy.

To boost music’s mental-health benefits in your life, Hanser says anyone can adapt some of the techniques used by trained music therapists. One of them is what she calls “deep” or active listening — instead of putting on music as background noise, set aside time to concentrate on what you hear, taking note of the feelings, memories, and bodily sensations (whether that’s a slowing of your heart rate or the urge to get up and dance) that arise as you listen.

“We can do that even when we’re feeling at our most isolated and sad,” she says. “We can take control, we can be empowered by the music to feel differently.”