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HEALTH

Music Is Just as Powerful at Improving Mental Health as Exercise, Review Suggests

David Nield

27 March 2022

The next time you're not able to get out to the gym, maybe spin some records instead: new research suggests the positive impact on mental health from singing, playing, or listening to music is around the same impact experienced with exercise or weight loss.

That's based on a meta-analysis covering 26 previous studies and a total of 779 people. The earlier research covered everything from using gospel music as a preventative measure against heart disease to how joining a choir can help people recovering from cancer.

A growing number of studies are finding links between music and wellbeing. However, the level of the potential boost and exactly why it works are areas that scientists are still looking into – and that's where this particular piece of research can be helpful.

"Increasing evidence supports the ability of music to broadly promote wellbeing and health-related quality of life (HRQOL)," write the researchers in their published paper.

"However, the magnitude of music's positive association with HRQOL is still unclear, particularly relative to established interventions, limiting inclusion of music interventions in health policy and care."

All of the 26 studies included in the new research used the widely adopted and well regarded 36-Item Short Form Survey (SF-36) on physical and mental health, or the shorter alternative with 12 questions (SF-12), making it easier to collate and synthesize the data.

The results of the studies were then compared against other research looking at the benefits of "non-pharmaceutical and medical interventions (e.g., exercise, weight loss)" on wellbeing and against research where medical treatments for health issues didn't include a music therapy component.

According to the study authors, the mental health boost from music is "within the range, albeit on the low end" of the same sort of impact seen in people who commit to physical exercise or weight loss programs.

"This meta-analysis of 26 studies of music interventions provided clear and quantitative moderate-quality evidence that music interventions are associated with clinically significant changes in mental HRQOL," write the researchers.

"Additionally, a subset of 8 studies demonstrated that adding music interventions to usual treatment was associated with clinically significant changes to mental HRQOL in a range of conditions."

At the same time, the researchers point out that there was substantial variation between individuals in the studies regarding how well the various musical interventions worked – even if the overall picture was a positive one. This isn't necessarily something that's going to work for everyone.

The researchers hope that studies such as this one will encourage health professionals to prescribe some kind of music therapy more often when it comes to helping patients recover from illness or maintain good mental health.

For many of us, listening to music or singing are pleasurable activities and perhaps wouldn't feel as challenging as getting out for exercise or sticking to a diet – further reasons why they could be helpful as forms of therapy.

"Future research is needed to clarify optimal music interventions and doses for use in specific clinical and public health scenarios," write the researchers.

The research has been published in JAMA Network Open.