From the drumbeats of our ancient ancestors to today’s unlimited streaming services, music is an integral part of the human experience.
Researchers have pondered the possible therapeutic and mood boosting benefits of music for centuries.
Even sad music brings most listeners pleasure and comfort, according to recent research from Durham University in the United Kingdom and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, published in PLOS ONE.
Conversely, the study found that for some people, sad music can cause negative feelings of profound grief.
The research involved three surveys of more than 2,400 people in the United Kingdom and Finland, focusing on the emotions and memorable experiences associated with listening to sad songs.
The majority of experiences reported by participants were positive.
“The results help us to pinpoint the ways people regulate their mood with the help of music, as well as how music rehabilitation and music therapy might tap into these processes of comfort, relief, and enjoyment,” said lead author, Tuomas Eerola, Ph.D., a professor of music cognition at Durham University, in a press release.
He also said the study may help find reasons for both listening to and avoiding sad music.
An earlier study, published in the Journal of Consumer Research, found that people tend to prefer sad music when they are experiencing a deep interpersonal loss, like the end of a relationship.
The authors of that study suggested that sad music provides a substitute for the lost relationship. They compared it to the preference most people have for an empathic friend — someone who truly understands what you’re going through.
Other research has focused on the joy upbeat music can bring.
A 2013 study in the Journal of Positive Psychology found that people who listened to upbeat music could improve their moods and boost their happiness in just two weeks.
In the study, participants were instructed to try to improve their mood, but they only succeeded when they listened to the upbeat music of Copland as opposed to the sadder tunes of Stravinsky.
And a happier mood brings benefits beyond feeling good. In a press release, lead study author, Yuna Ferguson, noted that happiness has been linked to better physical health, higher income, and greater relationship satisfaction.
Music as therapy
This music research aligns with the larger arena of music therapy.
The American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) reports that music therapy programs can be designed to achieve goals such as managing stress, enhancing memory, and alleviating pain.
It might seem surprising that music can help people cope with physical pain, but research has shown a clear link.
A 2015 review in The Lancet found that people who listened to music before, during, or after surgery experienced less pain and anxiety, compared to patients who did not listen to music.
The music listeners didn’t even need as much pain medication.
To conduct the study, researchers looked at data from 73 different trials, involving more than 7,000 patients.
The people who experienced a slightly greater, but nonsignificant, reduction in pain, and needed the least pain medication, were the ones who got to pick their own music.
“Music is a non-invasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery,” lead study author Catherine Meads, Ph.D., of Brunel University in the United Kingdom, recommended in a press release.
When it comes to treating chronic conditions, music therapy can also play a powerful role.
A recent review in the World Journal of Psychiatry found that music therapy can be an effective treatment for mood disorders related to neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, dementia, stroke, and multiple sclerosis.
After reviewing 25 trials, the researchers concluded that music is a valid therapy to potentially reduce depression and anxiety, as well as to improve mood, self-esteem, and quality of life.
They also noted that no negative side effects were reported in any of the trials, making music a low-risk treatment.
While listening to music may bring greater health benefits, creating it can be an effective therapy, too.
A unique orchestra for people with dementia helped improve their mood and boost their self-confidence, according to researchers at the Bournemouth University Dementia Institute (BUDI) in Dorset, U.K.
The orchestra is one of several BUDI research projects that aims to demonstrate how people with dementia can still learn new skills and have fun.
Eight people with dementia and seven caregivers participated in the project, along with students and professional musicians.
“Music touches everyone in some way, either by listening or playing,” said Anthea Innes, Ph.D., head of BUDI, in a press release.
She said that the orchestra has been a life-enhancing project for everyone involved, and that the project challenges the negative public perceptions of people diagnosed with dementia.
“Working together to produce a collaborative output is a powerful way to bring out the best in people — not just in terms of their musical skills, but their communication skills, friendships, care, and support for one another,” she added.
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on May 17, 2013 and was updated by Jenna Flannigan on August 3, 2016.