A young man lying on a sofa listening to music through headphones

A recent survey has found that almost a quarter (23%) of UK adults found music the biggest support to their mental health during coronavirus lockdowns.

According to a May 2020 report produced by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), 49.6% of people in Great Britain aged 16 years and over reported “high” levels of anxiety between 20 March and 30 March 2020. This equates to more than 25 million people.

If you turned to music during this time, or during subsequent lockdowns, you might have experienced joy through the discovery of a new artist or found comfort in revisiting the soundtrack to important events from your childhood.

Music has long been known to have a bearing on our mood and as an aid to processing emotions, and many scientific studies have looked into the phenomenon.

Here are some of the potential benefits of listening to music on your emotional wellbeing.

1. It can bring back happy memories

The context in which memories are created can be key to how and when they are recalled. A certain emotional state, a specific smell, taste, or view, or a particular piece of music could all have the power to help with memory recall.

This theory – known as contextual binding – caused many of us to turn to nostalgic music during lockdown. Stuck inside, unable to interact with friends in the way we were used to, and with a limited ability to make plans for the future, bringing back memories of happier times became increasingly attractive.

A 2019 study conducted at Durham University looked at this very thing and found that while music is a trigger for memory, it is the music we hear in our teenage years that is likely to trigger the most vivid memories. For older people, it was the songs heard between the ages of 10 and 30 that were most likely to act as a trigger for memory recall.

2. It can improve your emotional state

Music can have a positive impact on your emotional state in a number of ways.

As well as bringing back happy memories, music can be used – along with other creative outlets like art, drama, and gardening – as a form of therapy.

Research shows that listening to happy music can directly impact our mood and make us happier.

As well as altering our mood in line with the mood of the music we listen to, certain types of songs can also help us to process the emotions we are feeling. You might have found this particularly useful in the uncertain times that followed the outbreak of the pandemic and the subsequent UK-wide lockdown.

Listening to emotional songs about failed relationships and heartbreak after a break-up is one example of this. You might have opted for songs that brought back happier times or craved those that matched your mood – uncertainty, loneliness – helping to provide a sense of belonging or shared experience.

Another study led by Durham University, this time from 2016 and in conjunction with the University of Jyvaskyla, Finland, found listening to sad music can help us regulate our mood and bring a sense of “comfort, relief and enjoyment”.

As with listening to music to evoke past memories, listening to sad songs can have a negative impact too. The study found that older people tended to experience “comforting sadness” most strongly, while strong negative feelings to sad music were more likely among women and younger people.

Finally, the feeling of pleasure experienced when listening to music is directly linked to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter responsible for allowing us to feel pleasure, satisfaction, and motivation. Research from McGill University Montreal and the University of Barcelona found the link in a 2019 study.

3. It can help you to stay focused

Lockdowns were a stressful time for many, and stress isn’t conducive to focus. A lack of focus can lead to difficulty concentrating and settling down to tasks, which in turn can lead to tasks not getting done and a further increase in stress.

Whether you were working from home, passing your time while furloughed, or hunting for a new job having been made redundant, music might have been just the thing to help you break this vicious cycle and regain focus.

As far back as 2007, a Stanford University study advocated listening to classical music to help filter out distractions and retain focus.

More recently, in 2015, researchers from the Queen Mary University of London looked at data from 73 different trials and more than 7,000 patients and found that listening to music before, during or after surgery could lower anxiety and pain post-procedure.