Discussion, Music

Music and Mental Health


Today (3rd August 2019), the BBC reported that the UK Government is increasing funding to the existing £4.5m already assigned to Social Prescribing projects to allow Primary Care Networks and Trusts to hire additional practitioners.

Social Prescribing is a relatively new idea that is beginning to gain serious traction as its positive results are being more widely assessed. ‘…A doctor might give a normal prescription for a medicine, but they can also give a prescription for an activity. That could be singing, music, art, poetry, exercise or anything – but not a medicine…’ (Read the full article here)

The article quotes research from Australia that recommends around ‘100 hours of creative activities a year to gain a detectable health benefit – that’s about two hours a week’. Breaking that down even further, that equates to just under 20 minutes a day. Not a difficult target to achieve!

So What’s The Interest?

Let's get some perspective, so you can see where I am coming from. For several years, I have suffered from some fairly nasty mental health issues. Primarily, clinical depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation. I have undergone Psychotherapy and am still on medication. Things can still be shaky at times, but on the whole I am much better.


Frankly, if I had to sum up the experience, I would have to say it sucks. It was compounded by the onset of constant pain caused by 2 disc prolapses and a work environment about which I will make no further comment. ‘Nuff said. When I initially drafted this article, I was in hospital awaiting the results of a neurological review of my latest MRI, after I’d collapsed at home (and again when I was being examined by the GP). I won’t go into the possible diagnoses but they may have contributed to the deterioration of my mental state over the last few years. Kinda makes you think that maybe I had something to be depressed about…?

All in all, I’m fucked, right?

So when I talk about the value of music to people's mental state, I am a primary source.

Is There Any Scientific Evidence?

Actually, along with reams of anecdotal evidence, there is a fair bit of research on the subject and you can see the NHS evidence base collated by NICE here. One of the more recent attempts to assess and summarise the findings of those studies came from the Cochrane Library.

Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews - ‘Music Therapy For Depression’ (2017) reviewed 9 separate studies of the effects of music therapy on patients suffering from depression and compared the results to answer 2 key questions:

  1. ‘Is music therapy more effective than treatment as usual alone or psychological therapy?

  2. ‘Is any form of music therapy better than another form of music therapy?’

They concluded that ‘music therapy plus treatment as usual is more effective than treatment as usual alone. Music therapy seems to reduce depressive symptoms and anxiety and helps to improve functioning (e.g. maintaining involvement in job, activities, and relationships)’. They could not say whether receptive music therapy (i.e. listening to) was more or less effective than active music therapy (i.e. participation) - both seem to be effective.

Mr Smith is clearly still at a very early stage in his therapy…. (Image credit:  Peter Fischer )

Mr Smith is clearly still at a very early stage in his therapy…. (Image credit: Peter Fischer)

To summarise: ‘Music therapy for depression is likely to be effective for people in decreasing symptoms of depression and anxiety. Music therapy also helps people to function in their everyday life.’

How Does It Affect Me?

I suppose it all goes back to emotional literacy really. I used to joke with my students that I was an ‘emotional cripple’ and only had two emotions: ‘vaguely amused’ and' ‘incredibly annoyed’. Many a true word spoken in jest, and all that. I genuinely do have trouble expressing emotion in a positive way - words have always felt like a cop out. I would rather let my actions speak for themselves and hope that people ‘get’ what I mean. This is, frankly, pretty unhelpful.

However, music has a way of opening up feelings that I cannot adequately express. The best way I can describe it is that, when it really hits me, it feels like something bursting through my chest - like a huge pressure wave forcing its way out. Certain types of music have more of this effect. For example, recently I went to see The Skatalites. When Doreen Shaffer took the stage and began to sing ‘My Boy Lollipop’, I honestly thought I was going to break down and sob.

Seriously. A little old Jamaican lady, singing a ska standard nearly broke me.

I don’t know why it has this effect on me. Even now, I can’t think about it without wanting to break down and cry. But I feel better for feeling something. Anything, in fact! It doesn’t require words and, for me, it is a transformative and authentic experience. Cathartic really.

Toots and the Maytals - ‘Pressure Drop’. Always gets to me.

With regards to playing music, I find it quite a therapeutic process, especially when playing with the band. We called our first EP ‘Headspace’ because we all recognised the importance of the music in helping us frame the issues we were facing at the time. Making music engages a different part of my brain and I can effectively just ‘sink’ into it. I suppose it is a form of active meditation, removing all extraneous inputs and allowing for a focus on the interconnected nature of the music, finding that harmonious balance where the bass bridges the gaps between rhythm and melody. Either that or I just really enjoy making a racket.

I suppose this is why I find music so important. Thanks for listening.