Whether you’re a believer in Shakespeare’s famous adage that music is the food of love, or Delius’ belief that it’s an ‘outburst of the soul’, the idea that there’s a connection between music and our emotional state has proved to be a common and enduring one.

 Recently, a number of newspapers have been gleefully reporting that too much Christmas music can even cause depression – but whether listening to BandAid on repeat can make you blue or not, there do seem to be real links between certain genres of music and increased positivity, reduced stress and even improved physical wellbeing. Could classical music really be good for our health?

Is Music Bringing You Down?

Christmas songs are an unusual phenomenon. No other form of song is simultaneously so well-known and so ubiquitous, while only appearing for a short period every year. It’s not uncommon for people to roll their eyes and groan when they hear them creeping earlier and earlier into the year – although they might not be such harsh critics when they hear the bizarre festive tunes being attempted by experimental AI programs for composing music [1].

According to psychologist Linda Blair, however, Christmas music could actually be damaging our mental health. In an interview with Sky News, she singled out shop workers in particular as being at risk of expending all of their winter reserves of energy and wellbeing on trying to drown out Christmas music [2].

The idea that certain music is capable of bringing us down has actually been around for a very long time. While stories of mass suicides brought on by the melancholic ballad Gloomy Sunday belong more to the realm of urban myth than fact, it is true that the BBC banned Billie Holiday’s 1941 recording from the airwaves, for fear of lowering wartime morale [3].

More recently, several studies on the topic have found links between listening to particularly sad music and symptoms of poor mental health [4]. What seems more unusual in the case of Christmas songs is their over-the-top jollity having a similarly negative impact.

But what about the other side of the coin? If music can be harmful to our health, can it not also help to improve and heal it?

Music as a Medicine

Whether you’re a professional composer, an instrumentalist or, like us, a music notation software creator, it’s always comforting to believe that music is of benefit to the world. But an increasing body of evidence would seem to suggest that there’s a scientific truth behind the old idea that music can have healing properties, particularly when it comes to our mental health. In one study from Mexico, researchers saw dramatic improvements in the mental health of their patients after being prescribed classical music listening sessions as a course of treatment [5].

Perhaps more surprising are the studies showing that classical music can be used to treat our physical, as well as mental, health. Various research has shown that calming music, and classical music in particular, can have a range of physical benefits – from lowering our blood pressure to pain relief. One study from Japan into the viability of music therapy as a treatment option even found that classical music was able to alleviate symptoms of Parkinson’s disease [6].

As a society, we are only gradually beginning to understand and appreciate the importance of our mental health, and come to accept that the impact of music on our wellbeing is more than an old superstition. It has only been in recent years that music therapy has begun to be accepted as a medically legitimate form of healthcare, and a viable career path for a musician to follow.

Now, the evidence would seem to clearly suggest that simply taking the time to sit back and relax with some Bach in the evening can be enough to help alleviate all kinds of medical ailments – from seasonal affective disorder to chronic pain. It might, however, be in your best interests to try and avoid too much Slade.

[1] http://www.factmag.com/2016/12/09/artificial-intelligence-christmas-song/

[2] http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/christmas-music-listening-too-much-health-bad-effects-pyschology-a8040336.html

[3] http://mentalfloss.com/article/28525/songs-killer-strange-tale-gloomy-sunday

[4] http://metro.co.uk/2015/10/28/listening-to-sad-music-could-be-affecting-your-mental-health-5466796/

[5] https://psmag.com/social-justice/classical-music-an-effective-antidepressant-20226

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4036702/