It’s six o’clock in the evening. You have just come home from a long day at work, and you feel tense and exhausted. You trudge your way into the house, kick off your shoes, and grab your MP3 player. The headphones slip over your ears, and your favourite track gently begins to push out its soothing beats. You sink into the sofa, and there it is. Bliss.
It’s a familiar feeling. But why does our favourite music – and perhaps even music in general – have this cathartic, even therapeutic effect on us?
Music has been regarded as a sort of mind relaxant since before the days of Pachelbel, Mozart and Tchaikovsky. Even nowadays, their music is listened to by millions of people all over the world as a way to relax, de-stress and even induce sleep. Compilations of their music can be found in playlists on YouTube with titles such as “Classical Music for Sleeping”, “Music for Stress Relief” and “Peaceful Piano Songs” – and they have tens of millions of views between them. It is as though classical music is a universal hub for relief from the everyday stresses of life – without language or cultural barriers. No matter your background or level of enthusiasm for music, you can appreciate and enjoy a bit of Beethoven at the end of a busy day.
But it doesn’t stop at the velvety sound of Vivaldi’s violins. Music of any and all genres can have a therapeutic effect, especially if the listener is familiar with the sound. Heavy metal can be cathartic because of its typically quite angry sound, which allows the listener to purge themselves of negative pent-up emotions. J-pop and K-pop, which have become increasingly popular in recent years, are great for inducing a happy and upbeat mood because of their fast beats, cute vocals and sweet-sounding saw synth bass lines. And dance music, of course, is energetic and motivating – which you might find helps you have a great workout – or simply gives you that boost you need to pick yourself up, dust yourself off and carry on when the going gets tough. Some much more niche genres, such as soul jazz, progressive rock, witch house and binaural beats, are surrounded by subcultures that are all about using psychedelic sounds and imagery that alter the mood in a positive way.
The use of music in psychiatric settings to treat people with disorders such as depression, anxiety and PTSD is becoming increasingly common. Psychotherapy professionals and research scientists have found that regular listening to music selected by the patient (in combination with home-based talking therapies) can be a highly effective treatment for depression. For one outstanding example, listening to music during art therapy often helps patients with depression become more engaged and discover new talents and interests, which is very important for helping to lift the dark fog. For another, research that was conducted only last year found that patients with PTSD may benefit greatly from listening to music while receiving EMDR treatment. It keeps them grounded in the present while experiencing flashbacks, which helps to turn the flashbacks into memories, giving the patient a sense of relief and closure.
As time goes on, more and more cases of music enriching peoples’ lives and increasing their general well-being continue to pop up. It seems there may one day be potential for music as a therapy in its own right.