Using music as a coping strategy for mental health [guest post]

This guest post is by Anita Holford who I met recently at a conference. Anita and her colleague Misha, were there because they have been running a teenage mental health programme as part of their work for a Gloucestershire-based charity, The Music Works.


With Olly Murs and other stars booked to perform in a major mental health fundraiser later this year, Music 4 Mental Health, music and mental health is in the headlines again*. Most of us have used music at some point to improve our mood or add atmosphere to our surroundings. But how does music impact on our emotional wellbeing and how can you use it to improve yours or others’ mental health?

It isn’t difficult to see the connection between music and mental health. Listening to music can change our mood and help us reflect on our feelings and experiences. Actually makingmusic can help deepen that process, as well as deepening our connection to ourselves and others.

The Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) launched a campaign, Torch Songs, to celebrate the power of music to lift us out of life’s low points. One musician, Keaton Henson, has even monitored his audience’s responses to his music– by hooking them up to finger sensors linked to the lighting system so their reactions can be seen. And neuroscientists say that this song can reduce anxiety in 10 minutes.

What happens when you listen to or make music?

There are many studies about the benefits of listening to, and making music. Researchers have found listening to music releases dopamine, the chemical that produces a feel-good state and ‘rewards’ humans for doing biologically significant activities such as eating and sex (as well as having a much more complex role in human behaviour).

Other studies have shown that taking part in music can help:

Using music as an intervention

Outside of our personal experiences of music, and until recently, music and mental health has remained largely in the music therapy field, an intervention with strict clinical standards. Music therapists use live music and client-therapist interaction to help people who are struggling with emotional wellbeing.

In recent years, however, a number of community music organisations have been exploring mental health work with teenagers: such as The Music Works’ Music Mindsprogramme, Rhythmix’ Music in Mindprogramme, and Noise Solution’s workwith young people facing challenging circumstances – the latter being supported by robust evidence supported by the Cabinet Office.

They’ve recognised that, although they’re not music therapists, their unique practice (person-centred and participant-led, focusing equally on musical, social and personal outcomes, emotionally engaged and inclusive) can help people with their mental health in a range of ways.

For teenagers in particular, music is a powerful tool for addressing mental health. Firstly, because music can be so (in teenage language) ‘relatable’. It speaks to and reaches them in ways no therapist, friend, or family member ever could. But more powerfully, when led by experienced practitioners, making music together can create a relaxed space where they can feel comfortable to explore difficult feelings.

How can you introduce music into your work?

Even introducing music into the environment you work in could begin to make a difference and lead you to explore other ways of using music. Here are some further tips and suggestions: I’m assuming here that you are a professional with experience and skill in working with young people with mental health problems.

1. Play music in the background of an activity – with people’s’ permission. Choose the right music to set the tone – rhythmic music aids concentration, music with 60 beats per minute helps with relaxation.

2. Create a video ‘mashup’ of clips from songs that deal with mental health – use this in a workshop to prompt discussion of mental health. Avoid steering the discussion … particularly with young people they may want to talk more about what they like about the music/artist and avoid talking about mental health initially. You may need to give people a chance to reflect and be ready to talk about it at a later point.

We created clips from the following: Twenty One Pilots – Stressed Out; David Guetta – Titanium ft. Sia; Bugzy Malone –M.E.N; Glen Hansard & Lisa Hannigan –Falling Slowly; Demi Lovato – Warrior; Ed Sheeran – The A Team; A Great Big World + Christina Aguilera – Say Something; Lily Allen – Smile; Twenty One Pilots – Migraine; Paramore –Last Hope; Pharrell Williams –Happy; Rihanna –Disturbia; Eminem –The Monster ft. Rihanna; Rachel Platten –Fight Song.

3. Ask young people to bring in their phones or tablets ready to share some of the songs that mean something to them, help them feel happy, or make them feel sad. Share your own too. This is an opportunity to find out about each other, build rapport and trust, and start to talk about issues relating to mental health.

4. Turn a flipchart workshop activity where you’d usually use words, into a songwriting activity. Start of by sharing ideas in whatever form you usually would, then see if you can form them into a song/poem (don’t worry too much about the melody initially, although everyone’s different – some people will want to create the melody at the same time). As with any workshop, it’s best to give options for those who like to work alone, in pairs, or in the bigger group.

5. If the young people you’re working with play an instrumentor sing, after the lyric writing activity, ask them if they’d like to bring in instruments to see if you can create a song together or individually. Of course just because you or they play instruments/sing it doesn’t necessarily follow that you’ll be able to make music together! There’s no harm in trying, but if it doesn’t work out, consider looking for a local community music organisation or community musician to help (you would need to pay for their services unless they have a particular project which is already funded and looking for organisations to partner with). Look for someone who has experience with young people. This organisation can help: there are sometimes opportunities (including funded projects) on here, as well as contact details for local music organisations who work with young people and others in the community/in schools:

Other resources & information for music and mental health:

* In recent years we’ve seen musicians speak out about their own experiences of mental health (Lady GaGa, Zayn Malik, Olly Alexander, Selena Gomez and Kanye West, Professor Greenand Adeleamongst others) and writing more directly about it in their lyrics.Help Musicians have released a report and a campaign to support musicianswith their mental health.

Anita Holford is a freelance writer, communications practitioner and music advocate (see Writing Services) who works with music and arts organisations – particularly those who are involved in education, wellbeing, and social justice – as well as small charities. She also runs the website which collates research on the benefits of music education; has carried out extensive research and advocacy work into arts and health, creativity and education; and more recently has been part of the senior management team for Gloucestershire charity The Music Works.