All of us working in music education, community/youth music and music therapy, are only too aware of the toll that the last year has taken on young people – as well as staff, participants, customers and partners. Many of us have relied on music even more during the pandemic, as this study showed. With increased pressure on young people to ‘catch up’, music could be just the thing to bring some balance and pleasure into their lives. It can also support learning and wellbeing in a range of important ways.
Listening to music can change our mood and help us reflect on our feelings and experiences. Actually making music can help deepen that process, and making music with others brings further, overlapping, social, emotional – and educational – benefits. Music is deeply rooted in our evolution as a species – it’s no surprise that scientists have found that no other activity connects and activates so many different parts of the brain (see also the video further on).
We hope this article will help reinforce why it’s important for us as adults to do everything we can to support, and open up opportunities for, young people – and all people – to make music.
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A version of this article was first published on the West Sussex Music website.
1. MOOD: Improving mood and calming the nervous system
The most well-known benefit of music is that it’s a powerful tool for improving mood: whether it’s singing and songwriting, music producing, or playing an instrument. Music can reach us and prompt emotions and feelings in ways that no other activity can. It can take us out of ourselves, help us get into a state of ‘flow’ and focused attention, and be more able to cope with stressful, difficult feelings. It can raise our spirits, and calm our nervous systems. There are also lots of studies into the biological pleasure principle in music, including the release of dopamine and stimulation of endorphins, chemicals that produce a feel-good state.
There is research to show that people need to experience autonomy (feeling in control), competence (feeling good at something) and relatedness (feeling connected to others) in order to achieve wellbeing. This is something that making and learning music provides in spades (see also point 3).
There’s a developing evidence base to back this up: examples can be found here. And music is increasingly offered by schools, arts and music organisations, and the NHS as an intervention for mental health and wellbeing.
2. COPING: Learning to regulate emotions and cope with challenge
Making music takes practice, and involves taking risks, failing and persisting in the face of challenge. The more you try, fail and pick yourself up, the more you are learning how to regulate your emotions, cope with challenge and believe in your own abilities to succeed (self-efficacy). This is part of what is called ‘executive functioning’ – which provides the skills we need to manage ourselves and our lives (and is also linked to higher academic achievement).
From around 2010 onwards, researchers interested in music and the brain began to publish findings that linked learning music, to better-developed executive functioning, for examples see: Musical training could improve executive function, Brain imaging shows enhanced executive brain function in people with musical training and Playing a musical instrument could help with anxiety, behaviour and attention.
Many of these executive function skills are strengthened through learning and making music: including paying attention; understanding others’ feelings and points of view; planning and problem solving; and seeing consequences from actions. So music can be particularly helpful for learners who struggle to engage in learning, and/or have experienced challenging circumstances – particularly when guided by a suitably experienced music tutor or mentor who is attuned to their needs.
3. CONFIDENCE: Building confidence and self-esteem
By providing positive challenge and encouraging a young person out of their comfort zone, music can bring growth and build confidence and self-esteem. Performing with and in front of other people is of course a big part of that, and that’s one of the many reasons why making music in a group is such an important part of musical learning. Building resilience, confidence and self-esteem is linked to many of the other factors in this list.
4. EXPRESSION: Encouraging self-expression and processing of emotions
All forms of music allow young people to express their thoughts, feelings, and ideas to the world, with or without words. It can help us to make sense of experiences from an emotional perspective. Sometimes it’s not possible to put feelings into words and that’s where music excels. Music can also help young people to experience strong emotions in a safe way – particularly helpful again children who’ve experienced or are experiencing challenging circumstances.
5. SOCIAL INTELLIGENCE: Developing social and emotional intelligence
Learning music with another person, and particularly in a group of musicians, develops a range of social skills. We learn to pay attention to others, pick up on non-verbal cues, notice what’s happening in the group and respond appropriately, take turns in playing, give feedback. Again many of these are skills linked to executive function.
Picture: Dr David M Greenberg.
6. CONNECTION: Connecting with others: creating social bonds and community
When we make music with others – particularly in a music group – we experience all the benefits that come from social bonding and feeling part of a community. One of the ‘Five ways to wellbeing’  which have been used widely in mental health and wellbeing work in the UK*, is to ‘Connect with other people’, as this helps build a sense of belonging and self-worth; gives an opportunity to share positive experiences; can provide emotional support and allow you to support others.
A recent study highlighted five key functions and mechanisms of the brain that contribute to social connection through music, which are: 1) empathy circuits 2) oxytocin secretion (the ‘love’ hormone) 3)reward and motivation including dopamine (please and reward hormone) release 4) language structures and 5) (reduction of) cortisol (the stress hormone).
7. LEARNING: Learning to learn (metacognition) & self-assess
A sense of accomplishment is an important tool in developing wellbeing. Even better, like all good learning practices, it encourages self-assessment and reflection, because we need to understand why something ‘worked’ or didn’t work musically.
This is known as ‘meta-cognition’ (learning to learn), helping young people think about their own learning more explicitly by setting goals, and monitoring and evaluating their own progress towards them. Read The role of metacognitive skills in music learning and performing – a report and evidence review exploring how reflection helps musicians at all stages with independent learning skills and metacognition.
8. RESILIENCE: Finally, strengthening brains for lifelong resilience
Learning music – particularly an instrument – develops our brains in deep and powerful ways. No other activity has been found to connect the three main parts of the brain (the auditory, visual and motor cortices) with such accuracy, speed and flexibility and that’s why scientists looking at the effect of playing an instrument described it as like fireworks in the brain, because so many parts of the brain were activated at once:
Dr Nina Krauss of Northwestern University’s Auditory Neuroscience Laboratory in Illinois, says: “Making music can have a profound and lifelong impact. The experience of making music appears to create a more efficient brain, in a sense it super-charges the nervous system, and enhances a person’s ability to listen, learn and communicate, especially through sound – and that can have long-term affects on a person’s wellbeing.”