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Music and Happiness

By Patrick Lee

Everyone has that particular song that can alleviate bad moods and make even the worst of days more bearable. But why is it that music has this effect? And how does music promote wellness? Recent neuroscience research has provided many answers. Here are three key ways that music is beneficial:

1. Music and Mood: Music is a timeless pick-me-up. Create specific playlists for particular emotions.

The most basic benefit of music is its ability to alleviate stress and pain. The sounds and words of a song can calm and soothe listeners, but these palliative effects can be much more concrete than expected. An emerging field called music therapy seeks to apply music to aid recovery from physical and mental illnesses. From emotional to physical ailments, music helps to speed up patients’ recovery and reduce stress and pain. Cancer patients have been shown to exhibit decreased anxiety and nausea after chemotherapy when listening to music.[1] However, music therapy is useful not only for severe diseases but also for general wellbeing and happiness. A 2001 study by Anne J. Blood and Robert J. Zatorre reveals that music activates the same area of the brain that is associated with reward and pleasure.[2] In this way, music can naturally produce the feeling of happiness associated with an intrinsically rewarding activity such as eating. Through this lens, music can be seen as a brain food, and a daily dosage will go a long way in promoting happiness. A 2011 paper from Nature Neurosciencereveals that listening to music is often associated with increased dopamine activity in the mesolimbic reward system, one of the major dopamine-containing pathways in the body.[3] Dopamine is a major neurotransmitter that plays a vital role in feelings of happiness and pleasure. Therefore, an easy, effective tip is to create a pick-me-up playlist of inspiring songs or personal favorites for those moody days. This is a simple way to get more dopamine flowing along the mesolimbic pathway and quell moodiness and depression and is completely healthy and harm-free as well.

2. Music and Exercise: Music strengthens endurance, and different types of songs can be matched to maximize the efficiency of different types of workouts.

No one can deny the burst of energy experienced when their favorite song comes on during an intense workout, and neuroscience is shedding new light on this phenomenon. Adding music to a workout can make people feel like they’re exerting 10% less effort than they actually are.[4] Moreover, listening to music during a bike ride reduces by 7% the amount of oxygen needed to complete a workout[5]. However, only certain types of songs will maximize endurance. Dr. Karageorghis, a music and exercise expert, describes how he has correlated different types of songs with different stages in a workout. He proposes three ways to use music:

1. Pre-task: inspiring, slow-tempo music for warming up.

2. Asynchronously: regular background music with an upbeat tempo, suitable for when the heartbeat around 120-130 beats per minute.

3. Synchronously: music that perfectly matches the rate of workout. For example, each

footstep on a treadmill should be in sync with the beat of the music. This maximizes endurance and workout efficiency.[6]

A continuing theme in these three guidelines is the manipulation of tempo to enhance the workout. At the beginning, the beat of the song should be slower to allow for a gradual buildup of one’s heartbeat. As the exercise becomes more intense, the more upbeat songs should be played, in accordance with the pace of the workout and the increased heart rate. In this way, it is easier to adjust the intensity of the exercise routine. Just as musicians use metronomes as a reference for correct tempo, exercisers can play a very fast-paced song if they want to accelerate the rhythm of the workout, or a more calming, slow-paced song to initiate the cool-down period. In this way, making music the framework for an exercise routine promotes efficiency and simply makes the workout more enjoyable.

3. Music and Cognition: Music can improve auditory skills and promote mental longevity and well being by keeping the brain active.

Music also has the incredible ability to enhance auditory skills and sustain long-term mental health. People often say that listening to classical music improves test-taking skills or that music improves math skills, and although it is unclear how true these correlations are, there is no doubt that music plays some beneficial role in the brain. For example, a 2007 study at Northwestern University shows that musicians have faster brainstem responses to auditory stimuli than those who don’t play music, ultimately suggesting that musicians have more advanced auditory and audiovisual processing.[7] In addition, Nina Kraus, director of the Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory at Northwestern University, notes that through music, “the nervous system makes associations between complex sounds and what they mean,” and thus, music can help to improve communication skills.[8] Ultimately, these enhanced communication abilities can help people with personal interactions and relationships, leading to increased happiness. Moreover, such musical skills can provide sustainable mental health benefits. So how can this particular benefit of music be harnessed? Try learning to play an instrument. Although this method is a bit more involved and time-consuming, it is perhaps the most rewarding and long-lasting. As the aforementioned studies indicate, it will enhance and fine-tune the brain’s auditory center, and just the simple process of learning a new skill keeps the brain active and increases longevity. A study by Dr. Robert Friedland even indicates that people who play a musical instrument are much less prone to developing Alzheimer’s disease in the later stages of their life.[9] A musical hobby keeps the brain active and engaged and thus helps to prevent neural decay due to inactivity. So whether it’s the piano, guitar, or oboe, learning an instrument can promote long-lasting mental wellness and happiness.

Indeed, the benefits of music are endless, but these are three simple and especially effective ways to apply music towards achieving happiness in daily life. Just these three tips, creating personal playlists, using music to regulate exercise, and learning an instrument, provide innumerable benefits now and in the future. Music can provide both instant and long-lasting happiness, and it comes with no harmful side effects. In addition, these three tips don’t take much time, and many people utilize them to some extent already. However, making a conscious effort to consistently follow these three guidelines can provide quite a boost on the path to happiness.


[9] “Alzheimer’s Risk Factors and Prevention.” The American Health Assistance Foundation. 11 January 2011.  (Accessed 3 April 2011).

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