mental health

Nov 26, 2013

Why mental health is music to your ears

In this post, Amy Vee reminds us that we’ve known since Plato’s time of the importance of music to our lives and health.

A professional musician and Senior Project Officer at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, she explores the benefits of music, and outlines the work she’s been doing around with young people in the Newcastle region, including the “Youth Rockin’ the Black Dog” band competition.


Research continues to strengthen positive links between music, mind and mental health.

While laying the foundations of Western philosophy, Plato wrote:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

Most of us would agree – perhaps in not so many words – that music makes us feel good. What’s heartening to know is that, now more than ever, scientific research supports this notion.

In 2006, a US study purported that music can alleviate depression by up to 25 per cent. More recent studies have given weight to theories that music can boost the immune system, improve cognitive functioning, reduce stress and pain, alter perception and aid in treatment for a range of mental and physical illnesses.

Just this month, research out of the US, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, linked lifelong musical training to faster brain responses in older age, particularly with regard to speech, stating that “music instruction may set the stage for future interactions with sound”.

So, if music stimulates our minds and improves our wellbeing, what about the proverbial ‘tortured artist’ we see perpetuated in media and fiction? Does mental illness (including substance abuse) affect creativity? Are the psychedelic meanderings of Pink Floyd’s former frontman Syd Barrett and the despondent moans of indie icon Morrissey – both of whom have experience of mental illness – attributable to their ‘mad genius’?

What seems lacking from this theory is consideration of the debilitating and sometimes paralysing effects of untreated or unmanaged chronic mental illness, psychological crisis or substance dependency. Someone in the deep chasm of depression or the fugue of psychosis may be unable to string cohesive thoughts together, let alone pen a generation-defining tune. 

These assumptions also ignore two other important facts: 1) many people live very full and productive lives while managing their mental illness and 2) not everyone with a mental illness will feel the inclination towards artistic pursuit.

What’s more, while many of us use music to alleviate stress or help get us through the day, the people who pursue music as a profession are often subject to a lifestyle that is not conducive to good physical or mental health. Lack of sleep and exercise, exposure to alcohol and other drugs, long travel hours,  and struggling to pay bills or buy healthy food, are all facts of life for many a touring musician. Not to mention the scrutiny and pressure of fame for those who rise to the top.

Just recently, prominent Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor spoken publicly about the impact of misunderstandings about mental illness and how assumptions can be detrimental not only to those experiencing illness, but to those who are looking to seek help but fear the stigma of a label. Watch her interview with TIME magazine here:

We now know that around 45 per cent of the general population will experience some sort of mental health problem during their lives. Therefore, nearly half of our favourite musicians will have been through some sort of experience of mental ill-health at some point. The decision about if or how this reflects in their work will be as individual, diverse and private as any person’s experience of illness.

Musician or not, there are many things we can do to improve our wellbeing through music. Whether  playing an instrument or humming a tune, listening to familiar songs or discovering new ones, going to a concert with friends or just putting on some headphones, music can be a powerful and healing force.  The ever-growing and scientifically robust field of music therapy is evidence of this.

Music plays a particularly important role in young people’s lives, contributing to identity, expression and socialisation. Incidentally, many mental health problems and disorders have their onset in childhood or adolescence, or are related to important risk and protective factors that may occur during childhood or adolescence. 

It seems intuitive to use music as a means of helping young people to gauge their mental health and engage with the issues around mental wellbeing. A great example of this (which, in the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of) is the “Youth Rockin’ the Black Dog” band competition, coordinated by the Hunter Institute of Mental Health in Newcastle NSW.

Now in its fourth year, the annual competition is designed to raise awareness of mental health issues among young people in the Hunter and surrounding areas, providing a platform for emerging artists and encouraging more open discussion about mental health issues among young people. It has also been instrumental in increasing awareness of available services, such as headspace Hunter and Newcastle – both key partners in this year’s competition.

Most importantly, the competition is a platform for connection and an opportunity for young people to find common ground on important issues in a safe, positive and fun environment. According to the World Health Organisation, social connectedness and a sense of belonging are thought to be key determinants of good mental wellbeing.  

For me, it’s affirming to know that music is playing a role in keeping conversations about mental health flowing. After all, it’s been over two millennia since Plato mused that “music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul”. He was definitely on to something.

Amy Vee is a professional musician/songwriter, psychology graduate and Senior Project Officer at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, with a passion for links between mental health, the arts and community.


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One thought on “Why mental health is music to your ears

  1. Robert Carter

    I have a mate who says “I don’t get it when music is discussed in a social setting” and I don’t think he has mental illness but I don’t see him as a happy contented person , he is wealthy , but has a very critical view of the world I don’t think music will ever help him . Me I was raised in a family that was musical ,Mum a pianist ,Dad a banjo / violinist , we all love music , I played drums for many years and sang songs in bands ,all my children are into it singers ,ballet piano ,so I guess it depends on your upbringing , my grand children all love it too ,the only time the world is at it’s best is if I am listening or playing music eating nice food , and loving my family , without music I would have no life !!

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