Using Music to Boost Your Wellbeing

Using Music to Boost Your Wellbeing
Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson
In Health

Music is an integral part of most peoples’ lives – it’s all around us, and it can affect our wellbeing in a number of ways.

It is an art form available to almost every human being. Anyone can explore safe and appropriate ways in which music can lift their mood.

Music can also be used therapeutically in a variety of ways:

1. Stimulating the memory

Pre-recorded music has associations to times and places in our lives. If we hear a song from a different time in our life it can bring back all those old feelings. It may be very romantic, sad, happy or funny. Music can make us feel nostalgic and it can therefore make us laugh or cry, feel warm and loving or uncomfortable and full of regret.

When we work therapeutically with recorded music it is important to understand the client’s taste and let him choose music that has significant meaning to him, rather than imposing a personal choice that may mean nothing to him, this may otherwise simply be perceived as controlling.

When working with elderly people, if they hear a favourite old song this can bring back happier times and they can then often recall the lyrics which may not have been thought about in ages – then the individual can enjoy sharing their memories.

This is important in helping the individual to have a sense of continuity across their life-span and then to orientate them to all that they have done decade by decade.

2. Promoting exercise

Whether music is played on a hospital ward, in a Zumba class, a Pilates class, a religious ceremony, or a military cavalcade with men and horses – music underpins the movements and pace of events through the tempo, rhythms, mood and harmonies.

Running and exercise releases endorphins that are known as ‘happy’ hormones.

A play list of suitable tracks can energize and then calm people, for example during physical exercise classes followed by relaxation and meditative music to finish.

I always encourage my clients to develop a varied exercise routine because using our bodies can calm our minds, improve co-ordination and balance and reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Without physical activity one’s thoughts and worried feelings may get caught up and these can start to fester inside us. These experiences need an appropriate outlet or otherwise they can make one feel sick or wobbly.

3. Reducing anxiety

Anxious feelings can often be misunderstood as simply a digestive or eating problem. This sort of anxiety is unprocessed energy, which can be expended in music therapy because clients move about the room to play drums or tuned percussion or smaller instruments, rather than just sitting in a chair. Moving and being creative can help people to extend themselves and to be more spontaneous in having fun, and then they frequently want to start to understand themselves better.

4. Improving mental abilities

Practising a musical instrument is associated with enhanced verbal ability, the ability to work things out and improved motor co-ordination. This is because a lot of components and hours of discipline are involved in becoming accomplished on an instrument.

Let me tell you the story of Irvine (not his real name). Irvine was eleven and had just scraped into the school where I taught. He had tried the drums at primary school and this had done nothing for him. A child needs to find the right quality of tone in choosing his instrument. Irvine was an unusual and sensitive child, he didn’t seem to have a sense of rhythm, and so I worked to instil a steady pace demonstrating firstly so that he could copy me.

As a music therapist I knew how to find his inner rhythm and pace. Even when he had learnt only two notes we could play a duet together as I created harmony around his two long notes. So, he learnt to read music whilst feeling safe and supported, at the same time as blowing and moving his fingers. There is a lot to think about. By the end of his first year he had moved academically from the bottom of the lowest set of kids in his year into the top set. Individual instrumental lessons gave him the confidence he needed to be better co-ordinated physically, with improved attention span and greater ability of mental processing. 

5. Improving sociability

Irvine was an unusual child that had difficulties socialising but then he found that he was needed in the school band, so he started to make new friends and this helped build his self-esteem. He had a new hobby and could play in the local amateur orchestra and go on tours with the youth orchestra; music helped him to learn to bond with his peers in a shared activity and goal. Irvine used to struggle with his academic work but he got into a good university to train in an unrelated subject and instead of being the odd one out, he became the admired super-star when playing his English Horn (Tenor Oboe) in the University Orchestra.


Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson

About Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson

Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor.

She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.

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