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Guest Article

What can music do for you?

By Dr. Mary Adelyn Kauffman, DMA, MT-BC, NMT Music Therapist, Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center 

“I don’t sing because I’m happy; I’m happy because I sing.”  

This quote, attributed to psychologist William James, sums up why I decided to pursue a career in music therapy. After decades working as an orchestral and choral conductor, I noticed that no matter the genre, whether amateur or professional, musicians and singers tended to leave rehearsal in a better mood than when then they started. Why? Did they just forget about their worries for a little while, or is there more to it than that? 

Decades of research has shown that singing, playing an instrument, or listening to music affects activity in the limbic system, both stimulating reward pathways and dampening fear circuits (Blood & Zatorre, 2001; De Witte et al., 2020; Ferreri et al., 2019; Koelsch et al., 2016; Levitin, 2013). Music has been shown to facilitate the release of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins: neurotransmitters and hormones that play a role in pleasure, motivation, and movement. Singing or playing instruments in a group can help regulate cardiovascular activity, promote deep breathing, and increase the production of oxytocin, all of which can lead to decreased feelings of stress and anxiety (Vickhoff et al., 2013).  

So far so good, but what if you don’t sing or play an instrument, let alone in a group? Are there any benefits you can get from listening to music? What can music do for you? Let’s look at a few ways in which adding music to your daily routine could give you a little lift or calm you down.  

Music and movement. If your New Year’s resolution includes more exercise, but your motivation could use some help, then try adding some music. The temporal qualities of music – its speed, beat, and rhythmic patterns – affect physical movement, facilitating both voluntary and involuntary motor entrainment (Levitin et al., 2019; Thaut et al., 2015). This means that a strong, rhythmic pulse will prompt your body to synchronize to the beat, and an innate desire for pattern completion will help you keep moving. The best music to use is the music you like, adding an extra boost through your brain’s reward pathways. Pick music that is energetic enough to get you moving but not so fast that you can’t keep up. Still not interested in a hard-core workout? Then dance! Dancing works your body, mind, and spirit through creative and expressive movement to music. 

Music and concentration. The effects of music on attention vary from person to person, but research does consistently show that listening to preferred music can dampen disturbing ambient noise, reduce perceived levels of stress, and stimulate neurotransmitters that increase alertness (Barton et al., 2020; Kiss & Linnell, 2021, Lesiuk, 2008). One fMRI study found that listening to happy music activated neural areas associated with the default mode network and decreased episodes of mind-wandering (Taruffi et al., 2017). What music is best for you? Experiment and find out! The clarity and regularity of classical music may promote focused attention in some people, but your mind might prefer something either more chill or more intense. (P.S.: my picks are at the end of this article!) 

Attention and memory games with music. Want to train your attention or memory? Use music. The next time you listen to your favorite piece, focus on one instrument (NOT the voice!) and see how long you can keep your attention on it. Too hard? Try Johann Pachelbel’s Canon in D and stick to the bass line (spoiler alert: it’s always the same). For a fun memory exercise, try tapping the pause button after a phrase or two of your favorite song: how many words can you remember? Write them down.  

Music and relaxation. Only two things are needed to induce a relaxation response: repetition and passive return when the mind wanders (Benson et al., 1975). Repetitive patterns in music can induce a relaxation response, and listening to preferred music (again, engaging the reward pathways) can shift nervous system activity from the fight-or-flight response back to serenity (De Witte et al., 2020; Koelsch et al., 2016). You can use repetitive patterns in music as a framework for breathing or meditation exercises, pacing your breaths or phrases with the rhythmic structure. Individual preference is important in choosing music for relaxation: listening to slow music can help regulate heart rate and respiration, but if you find it too boring, then your mind may wander back to whatever you were stressing about in the first place.  

Finally, reconsider singing, even if it’s just in the car or the shower! There are few things in life as satisfying as taking a deep breath and making a loud sound. Drumming is another great way to get rid of stress, and it’s excellent cognitive exercise. Don’t have a drum? How about a box? Use your imagination. Don’t have time for exercise? The next time you have some household chores to do, put on some music and dance while you work (especially effective when washing the car)! Deadline is fast approaching, but you can’t clear your mind and finish that article? Try some background music: it could help you find the right words. Singing, dancing, making music, and listening to your favorite songs all promote the release of biochemicals that reduce feelings of stress, decrease pain perception, motivate action, and make us feel good. Start the new year with some music! 


My music picks for studying: 

  • Lute music, J. Dowland; Theorbo music, R. de Visèe; Tafelmusik, G. P. Telemann 
  • Anything by: Johann Sebastian Bach, Antonio Carlos Jobim; Joni Mitchell; Alan Parsons Project 



Barton, L., Candan, G., Fritz, T., Zimmermann, T., & Murphy, G. C. (2020), The sound of software development: Music listening among software engineers. IEEE Software, 37(2), 78-85. https:// 

Benson, H., Greenwood, M. M., & Klemchuk, H. (1975). The relaxation response: Psychophysiologic aspects and clinical applications. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 6(1-2), 87-98. 

Blood, A. J., & Zatorre, R. J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. PNAS, 98(20), 11818-11823. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.191355898  

De Witte, M., Spruit, a., van Hooren, S., Moonen, X., & Stams, G.-J. (2020). Effects of music interventions on stress-related outcomes: a systematic review and two meta-analyses. Health Psychology Review, 14(2), 294-324. 

Ferreri, L., Mas-Herrero, E., Zatorre., R. J., Ripolles, P., Gomez-Andres, A., Alicart, H., Olive, G., Marco-Pallares, J., Antonijoan, R. M., Valle, M., Riba, J., & Rodriguez-Fornells, A. (2019). Dopamine modulates the reward experiences elicited by music. PNAS, 116(9), 3793-3798. https://doi:10.1073/pnas.1811878116 

Kiss, L., & Linnell, K. J. (2021). The effect of preferred background music on task-focus in sustained attention. Psychological Research, 85, 2313-2325. 

Koelsch, S., Boehling, A., Hohenadel, M., Nitsche, I., Bauer, K., & Sack, U. (2016). The impact of acute stress on hormones and cytokines and how their recovery is affected by music-evoked positive mood. Scientific Reports, 6(23008), 1-11. 

Lesiuk, T. (2008). The effect of preferred music listening on stress levels of air traffic controllers. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 35(1), 1-10. 

Levitin, D. (2013). Neural correlates of musical behaviors: A brief overview. Music Therapy Perspectives, 31, 15-24. https://doi:10.1093/mtp/31.1.15 

Levitin, D. J., Grahn, J. A., London, J. (2019). The psychology of music: Rhythm and movement. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 51-75. 

Taruffi, L., Pehrs, C., Skouras, S., & Koelsch, S. (2017). Effects of sad and happy music on mind-wandering and the default mode network. Scientific Reports, 7(14396). 

Thaut, M. H., McIntosh, G. C., & Hoemberg, V. (2015). Neurobiological foundations of neurologic music therapy: rhythmic entrainment and the motor system. Front. Psychol.,5(1185), 1-6. 

Vickhoff, B., Malmgren, H., Astrom, R., Nyberg, G., Ekstrom, S.-R., Engwall, M., Snygg, J., Nilsson, M., & Jornsten, R. (2013). Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Front Psychol, 4(334), 1-16. 


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