Content warning: this article references suicidal thoughts.
Today, Glastonbury, the UK’s biggest music festival, returns and for countless music fans it heralds the start of the festival season.
Music has a powerful effect on mental health. Anyone who has watched a favourite band or artist at a festival will know the euphoric effect music can have on a crowd and an individual.
When I was a child I played 7 different instruments. It was a practice that helped me focus and understand emotions, through pieces written by people both alive and otherwise. Research has shown that hours of music practice helps with emotional awareness, social attachment and interpersonal relating. For me, with all my afterschool music exploration, I was searching for something within the music.
While on one hand, some studies have shown that those who play a musical instrument have an increased risk for mental health problems, that’s more likely down to shared backgrounds, upbringing, difficulties with family that lead them to find music as a respite, rather than caused by music itself. In fact, other studies suggest singing or playing music has a positive influence on our health including anxiety and depression.
As I got older I felt more and more strongly that music communicated something that lay between us and beyond us. It seemed to call to the highest part of myself and others, to unite us beyond words with our common human experiences and yet there was something otherworldly about it.
Lose Yourself To Find Yourself
One of MQ’s ambassador’s Amazin LeThi, also played many instruments as a child, but found music held the key to exploring her identity in other ways. Before she had the language to describe herself as LGBTQ she was drawn to artists like George Michael and Madonna who helped her to gravitate towards her own self-expression.
“Artists like Wham! and Madonna represent so much of who we are in the LGBTQ community, even when we didn’t know they were icons, because you can sense it through music. Music is the power of storytelling. Back when George Michael wasn’t out, he spoke about his sexuality through the music, how he dressed, how he looked, the flamboyance. Sometimes you don’t know why but it draws you in – it drew me in.”
Repression of identity, feelings or memories might not be great for mental wellness. There is research that has shown repressing emotions can hinder both mental health and physical health. To Amazin, music means more than just a nice background soundtrack:
“Music is such a creative artform. People say they can lose themselves for hours in classical music. Music presents a fantasy of a completely different world you can lose yourself in.”
Because of my history of mental illness you would be forgiven for thinking I find festival crowds anxiety provoking. In truth being in a crowd at a music festival is one of my very favourite places. And while it’s important to note that every individual’s mental health experience is different, the struggles of the mental illnesses that I live with daily, like eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression and anxiety, seem to dissipate even if only momentarily when I connect with the festival spirit. I come alive in a sea of strangers, united by music.
Last summer during a depression due to which I was signed off work, I went alone to a day long music festival in London. I cycled there, adorned in sequinned boob tube and hot pants. I’d cried all night prior, I’d struggled with my body image and getting out of bed that morning had felt like carrying a lead weight with my every step. But as I entered this festival experience something opened up gently inside of me. I watched bands I’d never seen and bands I loved. I discovered new artists and new parts of myself. I chatted to vendors who reassured me if I felt unsafe, just to come talk to them. I made instant friendships that were fleeting and ended at the end of a song. While it’s important to be aware of excess that can be experienced at festivals and safety is vital to keep in mind, I was surprised by just how safe I felt and supported by staff and fellow festival fans. I was anonymous in the crowd, and anonymous, for one day to my struggles.
To anyone I worked with at the time, to see me there covered in glitter might not make any sense considering I’d for weeks been experiencing thick suicidal ideation. But to those who themselves have been suicidal, it might just make perfect sense. Sometimes in the arts, you lose yourself to find yourself. Often I need to release myself to return
The community and coming together of a group united by music, whether it’s a choir, at a rock concert, in a tribal dance or something else, is an experience that most humans find resonates. Reesearch has shown that singing in a group of a choir positively benefits your well-being, and that community spirit is a part of that.
The festival spirit is one I feel helps my mental health.
Music as Therapy
Certain organisations also know the joy and release that can be found in music. Key Changes is one such organisation. They are an award-winning UK charity who work with communities to encourage mental health and wellbeing through music. They support people facing depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, psychosis and other mental health and neurodivergent conditions. Moreover, their approach is evidence-based and delivered by trained professional industry experts and is available to all music lovers at all levels of ability and experience.
Studies have shown that music therapy is a valuable and undervalued support to people with many different psychiatric disorders. And for those of us looking to manage stress levels to prevent development of mental health conditions, music has been proven to reduce physical signs of stress.
However, it’s important to note, music is extremely subjective and certain music in certain environments could increase stress. Certain studies have shown it matters how the people engaged with the music as to how well it benefits your mental health.
When I was going through a particularly dark time back in 2004 and had made suicide attempts, I was an inpatient in a clinic where music was banned due to its mood-altering effect and the memories it can trigger.
However, for me at least, music is one of the purest releases from mental distress. And for some of us there’s too few respites from that, so I cherish it.
Daily, I use music as a primer for positive experiences, and I do so in a conscious way. If the music in a café isn’t having the effect I need, I move on to somewhere else. Or I use my headphones. I curate playlists to encourage certain responses in myself – a running playlist, a work playlist, a calming playlist, a romantic playlist, playlists that take me back to certain times, certain people, certain memories I need to process bit by bit and when I feel psychologically safe enough to do so.
There is ample evidence to suggest people use music to improve their mood, and this is all to do with conscious listening choices. In this 2019 study researchers stated music is “not a magic pill” but found it categorically can improve mood. They also found people with depression are more likely to listen to music to intensify a negative mood, that they can become aware of this habit and counter it, but during a depressive episode they are likely to lose this self-awareness.
Days when there’s more consciously chosen music are mentally healthier days for me. I can manipulate my experience of being in a body thanks to music. I work more productively to music, I manage my anxiety better with headphones and a playlist, I even feel like running if I play the first track of my running playlist again and again.
This might be because repetition is a helpful tool in learning. Studies show that we learn more dependably if we repeat experiences.
Music goes even further than that to affect me physically. If I unexpectedly hear the track that features in the middle of my running playlist, my whole body responds to a rush of mid-run endorphins I was not expecting. This happens even if I’ve not run in weeks.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness when my body chemistry has a Pavlovian response because I can utilise it, to my benefit. And if you’re wondering my old running playlist mid-point is Juice by Lizzo and my current running playlist’s midpoint is Mutants Over Broadway by Tee Lopes and Anton Corazza. Enjoy!
Music To Connect
At this year’s Glastonbury, beatboxer SK Shlomo (who goes by this name, Shlomo and Shlo) is performing. They’ve collaborated with Bjork, Gorillaz, Imogen Heap and Rudimental. And to bring it back to Glastonbury, they’ve introduced Ed Sheeran on stage as a guest at previous a festival. Having known mental health challenges, they are aware how much the experience changes their mental health struggles.
“After ten years performing around the world I realised I was scared to step on stage. I became isolated and eventually I became suicidal. The more I imagined being seen by others the more I felt foreign, invisible, broken, alone. Then I began to think – what if the music could bring people together? I started to talk, to let others in. To share my suffering.”
Since meeting Shlomo during an online performance where we were both performing for What’s Going On In Your Head – a creative collaborative exploring mental well-being through performance – back during the first lockdown in 2020, we’ve become good friends.
Back in 2021, during a particularly dark time of depression which bled into the 2022 experience mentioned above, Shlomo and I spoke regularly on the phone. A few weeks after one particular conversation about the shadows I’d been experiencing, Shlomo sent me a work in progress song they’d written… for me. It was a huge surprise to be shown love and friendship in this way.
Earlier this year, it was an even bigger surprise to realise that song, ‘All Right Now’, has now made it onto their album. To Shlomo and to I, creation of music helps mental health struggles and mental health struggles helps music creation. The arts helps and sometimes it is the answer.
During that same depressive episode, another musical tool which might seem fairly simple was introduced to me. A therapist I was working with encouraged me to hum every night. Not to sing, but to hum. She said the vibrations would help soothe my nervous system and science backs this up.
The larynx in our voice box is connected to the vagus nerve, so when we hum or sing it activates this nerve which is connected to our nervous system. In addition, humming or singing adjusts our breathing pattern and slows it, encouraging us to take deeper and slower breaths – another reason why I enjoy karaoke so much, even as an introvert. Especially as an introvert, in fact; if I’m singing I don’t have to talk to anyone there.
She also recommended I listened to binaural beats to again encourage this soothing and manipulation of my nervous system that had been set to a dysregulated state. Binaural beats were first scientifically documented in 1973. It’s an ‘auditory illusion’ where two tones of different frequencies are introduced to each ear. Our brains perceive the two as a third, separate frequency. Some believe this produces effects such as relaxation or alertness. Research supports the theory that binaural beats could help pain relief, anxiety reduction and memory. In fact, there have been findings that binaural beats reduce pain, stress, and use of drugs compared to placebos. However, the jury’s out as to whether it helps with concentration.
From my experience, binaural beats worked so well that nowadays I listen to them almost every night while I sleep. And I don’t care if it’s a placebo effect. There are worse experiences than placebos and I’d do whatever it takes to prevent myself experiencing that darkness again.
To find out more about Key Changes, click here.
If you have been affected by suicidal thoughts please get help here.
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