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Music: the best medicine?

Just about everyone enjoys music, from those who devote their lives to learning theory and mastering performance to the rest of us who can’t help but tap our feet to an infectious rhythm.

In his 1973 track ‘Trenchtown Rock’, Bob Marley sings: “One good thing about music – when it hits you, you feel no pain”. This might overstate the healing powers of a good tune. But why is it that people across all nations and cultures share a love of music?

The field of positive psychology provides some clues. Positive psychology focuses on the resources, personal characteristics and behaviours that help people to lead full and satisfying lives. We know that engagement with music fosters many of the attributes central to mental health.

Music can enhance mood. Positive feelings play a role in undoing negative feelings and broadening our perspectives on the world. Music played with others fosters the pursuit of shared goals and a sense of purpose. Just as ‘practice makes perfect’, rehearsal and improvements in performance contribute to a sense of mastery and achievement, which are recognised as being important for wellbeing.

Music participation can offer specific benefits to people as they get older. Social isolation can be an issue for those living alone. Joining a choir is a great option as it requires no prior specialist knowledge or the need to buy instruments, and can lead to regular social engagement. There’s a component of light exercise (standing, moving, giving the lungs and diaphragm a workout). Importantly, singing could also have benefits for brain health. Researchers have highlighted the importance of an intellectually, physically and socially engaged lifestyle for maintaining memory into later life.

Research evidence into this area is somewhat sketchy. Most studies are based on interviews rather than comparing health and wellbeing outcomes of older adults randomly assigned to participate in music interventions with others assigned to control groups.

There are, however, some recent studies beginning to take a more systematic approach to examining relationships between music participation and wellbeing. One recent randomised controlled trial (RCT) based in the UK showed that quality of life was rated as higher among older choral singers than others.

Is it realistic to expect those who don’t have a history of music performance, who may not be confident in their ability to hit the right notes, to drop everything and join a choir? Maybe not, but finding a group that values participation and commitment just as much as talent and experience is a good start. The time-honoured practice of beginning to sing at barely audible levels (or, let’s face it, basically miming) is another. When confidence grows, so will the volume.

One of the blessings of growing older is the increasing awareness that how much we enjoy something and improve at it is more important than whether or not we expect to impress others with our efforts. So maybe it’s time to book those guitar or piano lessons, form a band or join a choir. It’s never too late, and if Bob Marley were here, he would no doubt approve.

Dr Tim Windsor is Director of Flinders Centre for Ageing Studies and School of Psychology at Flinders University.