Music May Be Just as Powerful as Exercise in Improving Mental Health

woman wearing headscarf listening to music on headphones

Maskot / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Music interventions were associated with significant improvements in mental health, and included listening to music, music therapy, singing, gospel music, etc.
  • The positive effects associated with music interventions may be just as powerful as those associated with a commitment to exercise or weight loss.
  • For individuals who may have limited capacity for physical activity to boost mental health functioning, music may provide a welcome alternative.

Many report mental health benefits from music. A new study published in JAMA Network Open found that the positive effects of enjoying music are comparable to the impacts of exercise in terms of mental health.

Based on a systematic review and meta-analysis of 26 studies, with 779 individuals total, researchers found that music interventions were associated with significant mental health improvement.

Given how challenging it can feel to get active when navigating mental illness, music interventions may serve as another viable option.

Understanding the Research

Researchers analyzed a total of 26 studies of music interventions, and found clear and quantitative moderate evidence that these were associated with clinically significant improvements in mental health.

Of the 26 reviewed, researchers found that 8 studies demonstrated that adding music interventions to usual treatment was associated with clinically significant mental health changes in various conditions.

Music interventions such as listening to music, singing, music therapy, etc. were comparable to the benefits of non-pharmaceutical interventions and linked to smaller changes in quality of life regarding physical health.

Researchers found that a broad range of music interventions were linked to meaningful improvements in wellbeing, and may not bring the same challenges with uptake and adherence as exercise, weight loss, etc.

Music Interventions May Benefit Many

Anna Boyd, LPC, a licensed professional counselor with Mindpath Health, says, "The impact of music on our human experience is undeniable."

Boyd explains, "The research on alternative and complementary approaches to traditional psychotherapy and western, pharmaceutical interventions is an ever-growing field of research that seeks to support treating the individual from many different spectrums." 

When it comes to how and why these methods are effective, Boyd notes that the research is still evolving, but this study compares the positive outcomes of music interventions to that of increasing physical activity and exercise.

Boyd underscores, "This study does a thorough job of collecting evidence from a myriad of spectrums of music therapy interventions rather than one succinct approach to the assertion that music therapy holds power to increase the positive outcomes of mental health treatment." 

Anna Boyd, LPC

Like exercise, music elicits responses from the brain activity to respond to the vibrations that are associated with the act of listening and receiving.

— Anna Boyd, LPC

The researchers concluded that there are many overlapping benefits between the music and exercise interventions, according to Boyd. "It is widely accepted that exercise boosts the impacts of self esteem and the increase of positive hormonal activity within the brain and body," she says.

By integrating music from the lens of drama therapy, Boyd highlights, "Like exercise, music elicits responses from the brain activity to respond to the vibrations that are associated with the act of listening and receiving."

Boyd explains, "In drama therapy, we utilize the notion of 'aesthetic distance,' which essentially speaks to the ability to explore our own stories through the safety of someone else's. This creates a space for the client to relate and express their experiences, while also promoting the safety of not having to share their own story so openly and directly." 

Music is a powerful mechanism, according to Boyd. "This study supports the notion of promoting more music therapy referrals as a complementary tool to promote and foster personal growth and wellbeing," she says.

Music Can Enhance Other Activities

Abby Klemm, MT-BC, a board certified music therapist, says, "These general findings show that finding ways to include music in your daily life can benefit your physical and mental quality of life."

Klemm explains, "Consider how you can incorporate your preferred music into your daily routines – can you listen to a playlist of favorite songs on your commute to get in a positive mindset before work?"

Alternatively, Klemm asks if music can help to decompress on your way home. "Would your favorite 'pump-up jams' give you more motivation in your workout? If you enjoy live music, can you block time out regularly to see a local band perform?" she inquires.

Music is not a prescriptive intervention, as Klemm notes there is not one most effective approach. "Music not only affects our brain and body as a whole but is so personal to us that its effects can vary from person to person and from setting to setting," she says.

Klemm explains, "In music therapy research, the largest consistency seems to be that an individual’s preferred music produces the strongest effects. Music affects many parts of the brain at once. One area of the brain it affects is our reward center."

Abby Klemm, MT-BC

I’ve supported clients in actively creating music, as a way to express feelings that they don’t have words for.

— Abby Klemm, MT-BC

Similar to other pleasurable activities, Klemm highlights how engaging in music can release neurotransmitters in the brain that increase motivation, improve mood, and decrease stress levels.

Klemm notes, "This research supports anecdotal evidence that music is good for us – it clearly affects our physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Keeping this general finding balanced with the understanding of the nuanced effects of music that vary by individual will help people find the most effective ways to use music."

The ways in which music has benefited Klemm's clients vary. "I have worked with patients who used their love of singing to improve their language and communication," she says.

Klemm explains, "I’ve supported clients in actively creating music, as a way to express feelings that they don’t have words for. Other clients have listened to specific music to affect their mood – lower stress, improve self-esteem, distract from destructive urges, instill feelings of hope, etc."

Music Therapy Can Offer Self-Expression

Christina Myers, MMT, MT-BC, a board certified music therapist with Four Diamonds at Penn State Health Children's Hospital, says, "For readers who are just learning about this, it’s helpful to know that your body and mind can respond in a similar way to music as it does exercise."

Myers explains, "Whether on a run or at a workout class, you can energize the body by increasing your heart rate. With music, you can increase your beats per minute and other characteristics in the music, so that your body releases pleasure system hormones like dopamine and serotonin."

While the music that inspires a reaction is dependent upon the listener, Myers notes that there are a variety of music qualities that may allow for similar responses in the body as exercise. "Some of these might include upbeat tempos, increased beats per minute and music that holds a variety of movement or emotional meaning to the listener," she says.

Myers highlights, "For those who are interested in intentionally using music to improve your health-related quality of life it is important to find what you jive with, and be purposeful about using it."

If you are struggling to figure out what this might look like for you, Myers recommends starting with your overall awareness of the music that creates the most motivation for you and recognize how your body responds.

Christina Myers, MMT, MT-BC

For those new to music therapy, interventions can represent a variety of methods that a music therapist might use to reach their therapeutic goals, which might include physical, emotional or spiritual goals to support a client’s needs.

— Christina Myers, MMT, MT-BC

Myers encourages questions like, "What music is resonating with you?" and "How does that music impact your body, as well as your emotional state?" Once the style of music that provides a connection is identified, Myers notes there can be more awareness of how the body and mind are reacting.

If music is of interest, Myers recommends connecting with a local board certified music therapist for support to explore ways to actively engage in the music process for self-expression and find an outlet.

As a music therapist who regularly combines songwriting, live music improvisation and active listening into her work with patients, Myers was surprised that songwriting was not included in this research.

Myers explains, "Throughout this research, positive impacts were measured by the number of interventions that were explored. For those new to music therapy, interventions can represent a variety of methods that a music therapist might use to reach their therapeutic goals, which might include physical, emotional or spiritual goals to support a client’s needs."

Powerful Untapped Resource in Music

Grace Meadows, FRSA, a qualified music therapist who has worked for the British Association for Music Therapy, and campaign director for Music for Dementia, says, "There is a clinically significant change in health-related quality of life when people are engaged with a music intervention."

Meadows explains, "Music can significantly improve our quality of life and there is more each of us can be doing now with music, be that helping to raise awareness and understanding of the benefits of music amongst family and friends, using music as part of every day routines, to support health and wellbeing for yourself and others."

Music may be a powerful untapped resource, which Meadows notes should be used more. "That might be using music as a motivator to move and exercise to, to lift mood and spirit, to connect with others through musical experiences to reduce social isolation and loneliness, or work with a music therapist to address psychological issues," she says. 

Meadows explains, "A simple way of thinking about how you can use music is to think about your day – when are the moments you might be feeling more stressed than others, is getting up in the mornings a challenge, do you find switching off at night difficult, do you find it hard to want to exercise or get moving, do you dislike doing the daily tasks?"

Grace Meadows, FRSA

A series of responses are triggered when we engage with music, whether we’re listening to it or playing a musical instrument.

— Grace Meadows, FRSA

In this way, Meadows recommends thinking about what music can offer. "Do you need it to soothe and relax you or motivate and inspire you? Do you need something that’s going to provide a distraction while you get on with everyday tasks or do you need something that will allow you to wind down after a long day and help reduce your cortisol levels?" she asks.

Once an understanding of what music offers is confirmed, Meadows notes choices can be made. "It could be something more rhythmic, upbeat and lively if you need motivation to get moving or something slower in tempo, possibly instrumental to help you relax both mind and body," she says.

Meadows explains, "The style or genre of music you listen to will be down to personal preference. You could listen to upbeat, rhythmical classical music to get you motivated but it might not resonate with you in the same way your favorite disco track does. Choose the music you want." 

When we listen to music, Meadows notes that the whole brain can be activated. "A series of responses are triggered when we engage with music, whether we’re listening to it or playing a musical instrument," she says. 

What This Means For You

As the research demonstrates, the mental health benefits of music may compare to exercise activities. Given how physical and mental health challenges may make uptake and adherence of exercise challenging, music may offer a worthwhile alternative or complementary option.

1 Source
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. McCrary JM, Altenmüller E, Kretschmer C, Scholz DS. Association of music interventions with health-related quality of lifeJAMA Netw Open. 2022;5(3):e223236. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.3236

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.