Music and Mental Health

Stephen P Brown, General Director, Dunedin Music Society, Inc. & Sarah Michaels, Board Certified Music Therapist at St. Anthony’s Hospital and Tidewell Hospice. October 2020

Music and Mental Health

Since 1981 the ensembles of the Dunedin Music Society have been providing direct behavioral health interventions with clear clinical outcomes. This document offers context and insight for non-participating decision-makers who may have experienced limited exposure to the authentic and ongoing mental health effects of community music activities either as performers or as active listeners.

Confusing Community Music with Professional Entertainment

Society at large has commercialized music into a form of entertainment, whereas music itself, being both apolitical and areligious, is generally accepted to be the language of emotions. This is why filmmakers select music very carefully as it directly affects mood and interpretation. When local communities are connected with live music not just as entertainment, but as one of the most fundamental forms of communication between humans, participants (both performers and listeners) are able to experience and process unspoken feelings and emotions in a safe environment, and in ways that professional entertainment cannot reach.

Elevating Support Functions to a Superior Status

  • While scientific studies all over the world prove that students who regularly participate in music get better outcomes in math, science and language studies, the Center for Music Education Research at the University of South Florida, among others, recognizes the vast number of music students who almost never play or sing after high school or college. One reason is that training to meet examination criteria and win trophies supersedes the study and respect of music itself.
  • While most higher education establishments were initially founded to further the skills and understanding of the three original professions of law, medicine and theology, those same institutions offered music programs to students, professors, administrators and practicing graduates to maintain good mental health. Indeed, many community music performers and listeners today are at the top of their fields in those same professions. On the other hand, today’s exploration of “Music Education” prioritizes academic process and function over the purpose, mental health impact, and emotional well-being of its participants: teachers are training future teachers, not practitioners who can teach.
  • The recent recognition that music helps humans recover from bodily upheaval, many mental health disorders, and treatment side-effects, has generated additional support functions such as Music Therapy. This essential service to aid healing and minimize trauma is a vital part of modern society for all ages, but especially the elderly, infants, the sick, and the incarcerated. It is also in danger of losing sight of the ‘bigger picture’ within which it operates – namely, the actual full participation in undoctored, unaltered, unfiltered live music as performers and listeners.

Participants Focus More on Doing Than Articulating

  • We know that music has been a fundamental part of human existence millennia before psychology and psychiatry became identified industries. We are also aware that relatively little is known about mental health (especially when approaching the domain of emotional well-being), as compared to physical health, which is easier to identify and quantify. 
  • Most performers and many audience members possess an innate admiration of the mental, emotional and physical benefits they experience when participating in live music, but are rarely able to articulate them. However, since its inception, the Dunedin Music Society has never shied away from that which is difficult to verbalize or measure. To this end, it has consistently delivered therapeutic activities that help prevent the escalation of clinical mental health disorders before psychological or psychiatric treatments or interventions are required, simply by offering local communities a variety of  opportunities to participate in live music on a much deeper level than sheer entertainment. 
  • All over the world, vast numbers of high-pressure professionals look to music participation for relief from anxiety and stress, but are often unable to verbalize the reasons for experiencing the benefits of doing so. If we could put music into words, we would, and there would be no need for music itself. 

Clinical Outcomes Affected by the Emotional Impact of Live Music

  • Participating in live music as performers and listeners, especially community music, has been proven to directly prevent escalation of DSM-V and ICD-10 mental health disorders such as 
    • anxiety, 
    • stress (including PTSD), 
    • mood, 
    • depression, 
    • loneliness as a clinical symptom among various domains including personality disorders, 
    • and even suicide. 
  • Music is regularly prescribed as a mental health therapeutic among physical health patients undergoing specific traumatic treatments such as coronary angiography and chemotherapy, yet as a society we often fail to recognize that those same effects of music exist beyond the clinical environment and are regularly experienced in everyday life.

In addition to his professional activities as a performer on multiple continents, award-winning Conductor Stephen P Brown was formerly Head of Music Departments at Medway and Sittingbourne Community Colleges in the UK, and spent more than a decade as National Quality Specialist for Magellan Health Services’ behavioral health division, where he noticed a distinct absence of attention by the social sciences towards emotional health, particularly among adults.

As a music therapist, Sarah Michael’s approach is clinical, using music to reach non-musical outcomes such as cognitive, social, physical, and emotional goals for patients of all ages. At Music Sweet Music, Inc., Music Therapy St. Pete, Tallahassee Memorial Hospital, Temple Beth-El Early Childhood Center, and Capital Regional Behavioral Health Center, among others, she has seen individuals with dementia increase in interaction and participation as well as patients with mental health disorders use music to express emotions and develop improved coping skills.