Feeling good feels good. In 1977, Ian Dury released his single “Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll,” a phrase that would be adopted by pop culture for years to come. Sex, drugs, and music all affect the regions of our brain that comprise our “reward system,” using the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate and enhance reward-related memories. With today’s onslaught of negative media, opportunities like these to strengthen our synapses for good are certainly beneficial and useful exercises.
I was speaking to a studious-looking MD after a presentation I gave in Saskatchewan, Canada. An avid music lover, he had been sharing the health benefits of music and reasons to socially prescribe it for years. We went on to discuss the benefits of listening to music frequently and intentionally and the fact that we’d both observed how music helped our patients feel better. He said, “I prescribe medicine to ease the pain, and you treat with music to do the same — they both have tremendous benefit.”
Sometimes life can throw you for a loop and what was once manageable becomes difficult or overwhelming. In the field of neuroscience, it is widely acknowledged that emotional and physical wellbeing are closely intertwined. Emotional distress and chemical imbalance in our brains and bodies are intimately linked. Medications can help to stabilize chemical imbalances and serve an important role in the treatment of mental health disorders. However, it can be challenging to find the right medication balance and mood-stabilizing medications often come with undesirable side effects.
Music offers an alternative that can help us tap into our intrinsic mood-stabilization systems that are mediated by hormones and neurotransmitters. As neuroscientist, cognitive psychologist, and best-selling author Daniel Levitin puts it, “The promise here is that music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body.”
The term “hormonal” is usually associated with our mood and the swings it can go through, but in reality hormones play a role in almost every bodily function and can be influenced by external forces — with music as no exception.
That is why we can say that, as humans, we are truly hormonious!
Like hormones, neurotransmitters play a crucial role in bodily function as well as emotional and mental wellbeing. You have heard about them a lot – here is a quick recap:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can also act as a hormone, by entering the bloodstream and affecting regions outside the brain. When it comes to listening and interacting with our favorite music, dopamine is known as the “feel-good” neurotransmitter because it stimulates our pleasure receptors and helps us feel more positive about life. These feel-good moments can lead to greater focus and productivity.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is important to the regulation of our mood. Music is widely thought to promote mood stabilization by acting on our serotonin system. Dr. Teresa Lesiuk studied music listening for positive mood change. Lesiuk’s work validates what many of us have experienced over our lifetimes — listening to music while we work helps us be happier and more creative.
My experience has repeatedly shown that music is effective and very efficient at fostering positive social interactions by promoting trust and cooperation within even the most diverse gathering of people. Dr. Alan Harvey puts it this way: “In a group context, music-related activities … encourage the formation of bigger social networks, help to define cultural identity, and may represent a ‘safe-haven’ in which individuals can interact and share experiences.” In his research from 2020, he goes on to document the links between music and the hormone oxytocin and the influence they have on physical and mental well-being, the key roles they play in bonding and feelings of attachment, and their positive impact on social recognition and social memory.
Our levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, have been shown to drop dramatically when we listen to relaxing music. The lower the levels of cortisol, the less stressed or anxious we feel. In patients undergoing surgery, music has been found to be just as effective as anti-anxiety medication at lowering pre-operative anxiety.
The evidence here is quite clear — music acts like a drug.
Keeping that in mind, it is important we use it responsibly.
Grateful to all the researchers out there who make articles like possible.
Chanda, Mona Lisa, and Daniel J. Levitin. 2013. “The Neurochemistry of Music.” Trends in Cognitive Sciences: 179–93.
Linnemann A, Ditzen B, Strahler J, Doerr JM, Nater UM. Music listening as a means of stress reduction in daily life. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2015 Oct;60:82–90. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.06.008. Epub 2015 Jun 21. PMID: 26142566.
Berbel P, Moix J, Quintana S. Estudio comparativo de la eficacia de la música frente al diazepam para disminuir la ansiedad prequirúirgica: un ensayo clínico controlado y aleatorizado [Music versus diazepam to reduce preoperative anxiety: a randomized controlled clinical trial]. Rev Esp Anestesiol Reanim. 2007 Jun-Jul;54(6):355–8. Spanish. PMID: 17695946