UNT associate professor: While music has the power to improve our psychological wellbeing, it’s not one size fits all

Krisstal Clayton
Krisstal Clayton

It’s said music has the power to “soothe the soul,” and during a time when so much in the world seems uncertain a little comfort is appealing. 

Krisstal Clayton, clinical associate professor in the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences Department of Psychology, shares how music can impact our health and what it is about some types of music that brings us a sense of calm. 

Can music help our psychological wellbeing? How does it work?

Yes, music can help our psychological wellbeing, but it can also negatively impact our psychological wellbeing. It’s all about what type of music you listen to and why. For a moment, think about a song that brings a smile to your face — one that you cannot remember all of the words to, but if you heard it, you could start singing immediately. When you decide to play the song, your mind is suddenly sent back to a wonderful moment in your life when that song served as its soundtrack. 

Now, ponder a song that brings a swell of sadness or anger. Maybe it’s a song that was playing when you discovered your significant other was cheating on you, or you experienced a traumatic event.

Music is quite powerful. It is connected to our emotions and our memories — good and bad. Not only has research demonstrated that music evokes emotions and memories, but it also affects arousal. Think about exercising, watching a film or experiencing a live sports event all without music. 

In addition, music is often a collective experience. We share the songs that we love with others. I have made playlists for my students while in quarantine to help them not only take their minds off the situation, but to also bond with my students. The music you listen to often says a lot about who you are, your age, and where you come from. Music helps us communicate with each other and express ourselves. 

What is it about music that provides us comfort when we are stressed?

Dr. Daniel Levitin and colleagues conducted a study in an attempt to answer this question. They discovered that listening to music reduces the levels of cortisol in our bodies. Cortisol is a hormone we release into our systems when under stress. So, the less cortisol the better.

Are there other medical benefits that can come from listening to music?

There are many medical benefits. As I mentioned, listening to music reduces cortisol. High cortisol lowers the immune system. We don’t want compromised immune systems. Thus, doing something as simple as listening to music can act as a support for our immune systems. 

Furthermore, music’s incredible connection with memory has been harnessed by a project called Alive Inside. This project provides people with dementia and Alzheimer’s with music from their youth using specialized MP3 players. The results have been heartwarming and astounding. Within seconds of hearing their favorite songs, people with dementia and Alzheimer’s recall where they were when they heard the song, what year it was and who they were with. From there, they begin telling story after story, moving their bodies to the beat and smiling again.  

My research also demonstrates that music helps people who’ve suffered from a stroke to complete and remember their rehabilitation exercises. In fact, the research on stroke and music has demonstrated several benefits including an elevation in mood. 

Are there certain types of music that provide more relief than others?

The music that soothes is different for everyone. I know people who loathe classical and others who will listen to nothing but classical. The key is to think about the music you listen to when you are in your, so called, “happy place.” 

What’s the best type of music to listen to if you want to focus or calm down?

I recommend the Calm app and playlists from YouTube, Spotify and Prime with keywords such as calm, focus and spa in the title. There are several renditions for every listener. Music with lyrics can prevent us from being able to focus, since the brain is trying to process the words from the song, and the task you are trying to complete. Therefore, these types of calm, focus and spa playlists are often full of lyric-free tracks. 

I also recommend practicing The Raisin Task while listening to a calming track to provide yourself with a brain break. The Raisin Task simply asks you to be in the moment with the fruit before, during and after you consume it. To begin, you look at the raisin. What color is it? Where are the bumps and lumps? Smell the raisin. Squeeze it between your fingers. Put it in your mouth, but don’t chew. Really taste the raisin. Let it sit on your tongue for about a minute and focus on how the raisin changes texture and temperature. When you begin to chew, how does it feel between your teeth? Now, swallow the raisin and try to feel its progress for as long as you can. Combining this simple activity with a soothing song can help us take our minds off of the world around us for a few minutes and teach us how to start enjoying the little things by being present.