Music for the Soul

Music for the Soul

by Brisbane City Psychologist Cherie Dalton

Music has played a central role in societies since the beginning of time, and although the characteristics of music differ from culture to culture and across generations, its purpose has always focused on social functioning within and between people. The benefits of music infiltrate our physiological, psychological, behavioural, spiritual and social states in countless ways, some of which are still being discovered.

Social Connection Through Music

Music encourages social connections and moments of shared emotions. Numerous theories describe the importance of music in social bonding throughout history. The concept of music-making and vocalisation in groups like singing Christmas carols or in choirs has been found to harness a collective strength and organisation (Weinstein, Launay, Pearce, Dunbar & Stewart, 2016) which feels unifying. While we intuitively gravitate toward pleasurable activities like listening and dancing to music, research appears to support why this might happen. Cirelli, Einarson, & Trainor (2014) found people are more likely to offer help to someone after experiencing coordinated movement through music together. The joy on people’s faces when sharing a song or dance is priceless and even moving together in coordinated ways to music has been shown to enhance group cohesion and social bonding (Launay, Tarr & Dunbar, 2016).

One of the most natural examples of social bonding through music is in the caregiver-child relationship. Nursery rhymes and childhood songs help to explore emotions, create comfort, and enhance and focus interactions. Social connection through music creates a sense of common humanity and belonging and can offer compassion, support and ways of coping through shared emotional experiences without words. We see this in obvious ways at occasions celebrating important life events like funerals, benefit concerts, graduations and birthday parties. Music punctuates our life and connects us with significant memories allowing us to process change and remember important times.

The Impact of Music on Body and Mind

Much has been written about the effect of music on physical and emotional states. The qualities of music and their impact on our nervous system offer valuable lessons. Listening to slow-tempo music is associated with feelings of relaxation and increases in oxytocin (our body’s nurturing and social bonding hormone). Listening to fast-tempo music was found to align with decreasing cortisol levels (our body’s stress hormone) (Ooishi, Mukai, Watanabe, Kawato, & Kashino, 2017). So, it seems both fast-tempo and slow-tempo music is a path to feeling less stressed. Even listening to music before stress has been found to help us cope by speeding recovery of the autonomic nervous system following a stressful event (Thoma, Roberto, Bronnimann, Finkel, Ehlert, 2013). 

But what about personal preference? Some research has found that relaxation through music is more likely when the music is familiar and of a preferred choice (Tan, Yowler, Super, Fratianne, 2012). Interestingly, they also found relaxation responses to music that soothe the nervous system and restore healthy balance require repeated and conscious practice whereas music that evokes the stress response affects the nervous system immediately (Dusek & Benson, 2009) – a good reason to practice relaxation regularly. In polyvagal theory, Stephen Porges (1994) explains the body’s soothing, safe and social response is activated by mid-range frequency music. The right choice of music may soothe our souls. Interestingly, Seth Porges notes Disney music to be typically mid-range frequency conducive to facilitation of a calm, engaged, safe state for the nervous system.

Other studies have noted the unique properties of soothing music to assist sleep. The reasons for this vary between individuals but include stimulating the relaxation response, forming part of a sleep routine and habit, and blocking internal or external distractions (Trahan, Durrant, Mullensiefen, Williamson, 2018).  

Vast research exists on the impact of music on humans, and there is much to still learn about its potential to enhance and improve wellbeing myriad ways. Music has the power to soothe the soul through a multitude of mechanisms including distraction from worries, absorption in a pastime, creating meaning and identity, a sense of belonging, forming social bonds and attachment, providing opportunity for expression of emotions without words, instilling a sense of common humanity and shared experience, creating a break from daily life, and activation of soothing, safe and engaged emotional states through enjoyable and relatively effortless engagement.