Most of us would agree that music makes us feel good, but can it actually make us healthier?

In 2006, a US study purported that music can alleviate depression by up to 25%. More recent studies have given weight to theories that music can boost the immune systemimprove cognitive functioningreduce stress and painalter perception and aid in treatment for a range of mental and physical illnesses.

Just this month, research out of the US, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, linked lifelong musical training to faster brain responses in older age, particularly with regard to speech, stating that “music instruction may set the stage for future interactions with sound”.

So, if music stimulates our minds and improves our well-being, what about the proverbial “tortured artist” we see perpetuated in media and fiction? Does mental illness (including substance abuse) affect creativity? Are the psychedelic meanderings of Pink Floyd’s former frontman Syd Barrett and the despondent moans of indie icon Morrissey — both of whom have experienced mental illness — attributable to their “mad genius”?

What seems lacking from this theory is consideration of the debilitating and sometimes paralysing effects of untreated or unmanaged chronic mental illness, psychological crisis or substance dependency. Someone in the deep chasm of depression or the fugue of psychosis may be unable to string cohesive thoughts together, let alone pen a generation-defining tune. These assumptions also ignore two other important facts — that many people live very full and productive lives while managing their mental illness and not everyone with a mental illness will feel the inclination towards artistic pursuit.

What’s more, while many of us use music to alleviate stress or help get us through the day, the people who pursue music as a profession are often subject to a lifestyle that is not conducive to good physical or mental health. Lack of sleep and exercise, exposure to alcohol and other drugs, long travel hours and struggling to pay bills or buy healthy food are all facts of life for many a touring musician. Not to mention the scrutiny and pressure of fame for those who rise to the top. Just recently, prominent Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor spoke publicly about how assumptions and misunderstandings about mental illness can be detrimental not only to those experiencing illness, but to those who are looking to seek help but fear the stigma of a label. 

We now know that around 45% of the general population will experience some sort of mental health problem during their lives. Therefore, nearly half of our favourite musicians will have been through some sort of experience of mental ill-health at some point. The decision about if or how this reflects in their work will be as individual, diverse and private as any person’s experience of illness.

Musician or not, there are many things we can do to improve our well-being through music. Whether  playing an instrument or humming a tune, listening to familiar songs or discovering new ones, going to a concert with friends or just putting on some headphones, music can be a powerful and healing force.  The ever-growing and scientifically robust field of music therapy is evidence of this.

Music plays a particularly important role in young people’s lives, contributing to identity, expression and socialisation. Incidentally, many mental health problems and disorders have their onset in childhood or adolescence, or are related to important risk and protective factors that may occur during childhood or adolescence.

For me, it’s affirming to know that music is playing a role in keeping conversations about mental health flowing. After all, it’s been over two millennia since Plato mused that “music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul”. He was definitely onto something.

*Amy Vee is a professional musician/songwriter, psychology graduate and Senior Project Officer at the Hunter Institute of Mental Health, with a passion for links between mental health, the arts and community.