Science confirms that music helps us feel better in the short-term. But is music in our lives also good for long-term “wellbeing”?
“Wellbeing” is a combination of two factors:
“Doing Well” - the material dimension of welfare aka our standard of living.
“Feeling Good” - the expressions of subjective life satisfaction.
Diving deeper into “Feeling Good”, we find two classic philosophical concepts:
Hedonic wellbeing is pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. “Living in the moment”.
Eudaemonic wellbeing is the deeper connection and self-realisation within our work and play. Our level of general fulfilment in our everyday lives.
So our life satisfaction along this path can be attributed to these 4 pillars:
Engagement - e.g. Why our voices change when speaking to babies
One of the reasons we are musical is that pitches and rhythms allow us to engage with our pre-verbal young. We need a pre-speech communication, a way to display and interpret emotions and needs. We also need a way to teach our young about language, a way that grabs their limited attention spans. Hence infant-directed speech (IDS).
IDS around the world has unique musical features. It uses wide sweeps of pitch contour, goes higher in vocal range, contains beat driven expression. It makes us sound a bit ridiculous – you would think it very bizarre to hear IDS at work – but it is fascinating to our young. They stare and engage more with IDS.
IDS has been documented in wide range of languages, including Africa and the Middle East (Arabic and Xhosa),The Americas (Comanche), Australia (Warlpiri), East Asia (Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, and Gilyak), South Asia (Bengali, Hindi, Marathi, and Sinhala), Europe (English, French, German, Italian, Latvian, and Swedish)
Speaking in IDS not only engages the trust and excitement of our babies, it communicates important language lessons such as syllabic and phrase boundaries as well as vowel stress. The foundation of the language that we speak and understand is musical sound. The musical features of our vocalisations add colour and offer vital support in the development of the next generation.
Meaning - e.g. Listening to music that is designed to upset us
Music cheers us up, an aspect of hedonistic wellbeing. Right there alongside sex and drugs. The counterintuitive case is sad music. Why do we listen to and compose music that is designed to upset us? Surely that can’t be good for our wellbeing?
In his ground-breaking book Sweet Anticipation, Professor David Huron theorises that sad music drives us to a deeper level of sadness that allows for emotional release. Peak expression such as cathartic tears triggers oxytocin, prolactin and other endorphin responses in our brains. This emergency feel-good bath of neurochemicals is only released under extreme stress to try to protect the brain.
Sad music creates a non-threatening environment – there is no scary or grief inducing event in the music itself – that triggers a psychological boost. The darker side of music allows meaningful interaction with our emotions for psychological comfort and release. Music is one way to trigger a deeper understanding and acceptance when life gets tough.
Flow - e.g. The peak of our concentration / focus state
As well as regulation of hormones and neurotransmitters, music can alter activity in the autonomic nervous system, raising and lowering alertness and attention. It is a way to help us achieve the gold standard of focus, flow. That state where we are completely focused on the task or environment at hand; time melts away and our minds refuse to wander. In flow we feel achievement. Flow is critical to our wellbeing.
Music is an effective way to induce and maintain states of fulfilling work and leisure both when we are independent and when we are in groups. Body/ bodies and mind/ minds and the world around us coordinating together in perfect harmony. In an evolutionary sense, groups that worked well together would also have maximised chances of successful survival. Hence music has always been and will always be a way to encourage flow.
Social bonds e.g. Group singing throughout history has been vital to our emotional stability
Related to group work is the idea that music plays a crucial role in generating, defining and maintaining social bonds. Social bonding at multiple levels (couples, teams and nations) and for multiple purposes. Once upon a time, humans made music to self-identify at a distance to other groups.
The act of performing together bonds a group to such an extent that scientists report synchronised movements, heart beats and brain waves (inter-brain synchrony), even in nursery age children. We are a social animal, we need others in order to survive. Music helps us feel part of a group, whether it is a physical reality or through psychological identity (i.e. fan culture), and thereby ensures that we don’t feel alone.
The idea that music is good for us goes back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. Aristotle believed that daily singing was vital to emotional stability. Plato stated that order and harmony could be restored to the soul by means of rhythm and melody. Both great philosophers needed no convincing about the power of music for wellbeing but they argued for different pathways. We now understand that they were right but that they found only some pieces of the puzzle. Music supports our wellbeing in multiple ways at multiple life stages and for that reason it will always be a part of what makes life worth living.