Euroviews. I am a neuroscientist. Music does more for our mental health than you think

Jouan, a 10-year-old refugee from Aleppo, plays the violin as he practises backstage prior to a concert in Mytilene, Lesbos, December 2016
Jouan, a 10-year-old refugee from Aleppo, plays the violin as he practises backstage prior to a concert in Mytilene, Lesbos, December 2016 Copyright AP Photo/Euronews
By Daniel Bowling, PhD, Neuroscientist
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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent in any way the editorial position of Euronews.

Perhaps we should stop thinking about music primarily as a source of entertainment and profit and more as an essential form of social communication with real neurobiological benefits, Daniel Bowling writes.

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For many of us, the understanding that music can calm our nerves, improve our mood, and make us feel connected to one another, is largely intuitive. 

Parents sing to their babies to facilitate sleep, modulate mood, and scaffold communication. Likewise, adults turn to uplifting music for energy and motivation and soothing music for relaxation and calm.

While such effects can feel mysterious, the truth is that they arise mechanistically from the interaction between musical tones and rhythms with our brains.

Although I had been a musician since I was a child, and had studied the biological foundations of music for more than a decade, the relevance of music’s effects on the brain for mental health was not initially obvious to me. 

Intellectually, I understood that music is an important part of human nature, with deep roots in the biology of social communication, which goes a long way towards explaining its emotional power.

Practically, I knew that I looked to music every day as a source of joy, motivation, and connection. 

But, perhaps like many basic scientists, I was naïve about how closely such effects align with critical dimensions of mental health (like mood, anxiety, focus, and sociality). 

I didn’t understand how overlap in underlying neurophysiology could provide a scientific basis for music as therapy.

Leaving my comfort zone helped me as a scientist

This began to change when, after nearly 10 years abroad completing my studies, I returned to the US for a job in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Stanford School of Medicine. 

There, I quickly learned about the magnitude of our society’s growing problems with mental health (especially for young people) and the tremendous need for better services. 

I also felt the collective frustration with our current best practices (i.e., our best behavioural and pharmacological therapies), which unfortunately have so little to offer so many in need, and which often carry significant burdens through side effects.

What if we stopped thinking about music primarily as a source of entertainment and profit and more as an essential form of social communication with real neurobiological benefits?
AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko
A patient sits in a corridor at a psychiatric hospital In Kramatorsk, March 2023AP Photo/Vasilisa Stepanenko

In what felt like a cliché at the time, I was also contacted by a start-up, Spiritune, about consulting work within several weeks of my arrival in Silicon Valley. 

Despite my initial scepticism, I’ve learned some important things that have changed how I think about the value of music.

In taking a closer look at musical applications in health, I’ve come face-to-face with the mountain of evidence showing that music-based therapies and interventions are broadly effective, e.g., at reducing core symptoms and/or quality of life across many of our most common ailments, including disorders of anxiety, mood, social function, psychosis, and dementia. 

Together, these and other insights have made me wonder how much more music could do for us.

What if we stopped thinking about music primarily as a source of entertainment and profit and more as an essential form of social communication with real neurobiological benefits?

This is how we came up with a lulaby for Syrian children

One of the more satisfying applications of my research so far has been in working with Spiritune on the Frequencies of Peace campaign, which seeks to bring a bit of peace to Syrian children in a world plagued by war and natural disasters. 

As part of a larger effort to supply toys, blankets, and other sleep aids to these kids, Babyshop, a Middle-Eastern retailer of products for children, came up with the goal of composing a special Arabic lullaby to be played over the radio at bedtime in homes, camps, orphanages, and hospitals all over the region. 

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While the magnitude of the problems faced by these children ... far outweighs what we can hope to have achieved with a single lullaby, the effort remains important in a number of ways.
AP Photo/Hussein Malla
A child, injured in the earthquake, is treated at the hospital in Bab al-Hawah, Syria, 12 February 2023AP Photo/Hussein Malla

The small editorial role played by us in this process was in iterating back and forth with a local composer to help ensure that the final lullaby was acoustically aligned with parameters that communicate peace and calm and that is suitable for use in a context of helping children for whom unpredictability has engendered a fundamental state of hyper-vigilance and anxiety.

While the magnitude of the problems faced by these children, now and in the future, far outweighs what we can hope to have achieved with a single lullaby, the effort remains important in a number of ways.

Can a song really help?

First and foremost, we hope that it will provide some immediate comfort and predictability in the lives of these children while also serving as a window into the tenderness and kindness that exists in the world.

Second, we hope that it will draw attention to the emotional plight of these children and stimulate other local and international partnerships aimed at helping them. 

And third, we want this campaign to highlight the tangible value of music for mental health, not only for the most vulnerable but for us all. 

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The effects are just as real as those of other interventions that have become staples of modern mental health care.
RICHARD GRAULICH/AP
Tom Dalton sings a hurricane lullaby song with children at the Clark Forest Hill Montessori School in West Palm Beach, August 2006RICHARD GRAULICH/AP

The capacity of music to soothe, lull, and generally calm our nerves applies broadly, as does its capacity to stimulate positive emotions, motivate and reward, and bring people together. 

These effects have a biological reality that we are increasingly coming to understand, and the effects are just as real as those of other interventions that have become staples of modern mental health care.

Music does more for our mental health than you think

As problems with mental health continue to rise and the world faces new challenges, music will continue to help people, as it always has. 

If we continue to overlook this reality, we will miss an important opportunity in a time of need. We need to double down on understanding music’s effects on the brain, promote them, and perhaps most importantly, teach our children how to leverage them. 

The onus is thus on scientists, clinicians, educators, musicians, public funders, and private companies to push forward with work that advances the integration of music into our healthcare systems and wellness practices. 

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I would encourage anyone who has ever felt moved by music to take it seriously and actively seek out ways in which music can improve their condition.
AP Photo/Valentina Petrova
Ukrainian refugees sing Ukrainian songs in front of a flag during a march in Sofia, 24 February 2023AP Photo/Valentina Petrova

This project will not be without its challenges, but the collective knowledge of musicians, music therapists, and biological music researchers can already provide considerable insight into the way forward. 

We are also starting to learn how to target musical treatments to individuals with greater precision, which, combined with new technologies, will allow us to develop better ways of getting the right music to the right people at the right time. 

All of this is to say that a world in which music does more for our mental health is eminently achievable, and I would encourage anyone who has ever felt moved by music to take it seriously and actively seek out ways in which music can improve their condition.

Daniel Bowling, PhD, is a neuroscientist working at Stanford School of Medicine's Parker Lab, focusing on auditory-vocal function in human social communication.

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