Harnessing the power of music for mental health

4 months ago
Kate Andrews

Kate Andrews is a member of our Chief Examiner Group, as well as being an oboist, teacher and music therapist. Here she offers some thoughts and musical strategies for those experiencing poor mental health and those who love them.

When I tell people I’m a music therapist, a frequent response is for them to talk broadly about ‘the power of music’, often asking enthusiastically whether I know a particular album, artist or work. While my musical knowledge is sadly not quite encyclopaedic, the identification of music as a powerful force in our lives is not in question. If we can be more specific about why and how it finds its power, though, we are also in a position to harness that power for the benefit of ourselves and those around us.

I have worked with people with a wide range of diagnoses and situations, from degenerative neurological conditions and dementia to profound and complex disabilities; with new families finding their way, post-adoption, to individuals nearing the end of their life. Despite their varied circumstances, every one of these people shares the near-universal human desire to be known and understood, and the role of music is invariably that of bridge-builder; it allows us to find common ground and shared experience, despite sometimes vast chasms in our lifestyles, backgrounds and communication styles. We might use words, if that would help, but we don’t need to – the music does the heavy lifting.

When our mental health is compromised, we tend to become isolated. That gulf between ourselves and others widens and it can become increasingly difficult to imagine how we might find a way to reach those on the other side and explain that we are struggling. Below I offer some brief thoughts and musical strategies for those experiencing poor mental health, and those who love them. I can’t guarantee they will work for everyone, but they have helped others and you might find the seed of something that will suit you.

If you are having a difficult time, please know that you are not alone, even if it feels that way. People around you might suggest that you play more upbeat music in order to lift your spirits; this is rarely helpful, with such music tending to jar horribly when we are struggling, sounding as though it belongs in a different world, with different people, none of whom we can reach. One of the absolute tenets of therapy is that we must meet our clients where they are; with music as your therapist, the same is true. If you want to listen to melancholy music or angry music or neutral music, because it matches the sadness or frustration or numbness that you feel, then do. The belief that this composer, songwriter or performer might have felt as you do – that someone, somewhere might have felt this way and made it through – can be the kindling of reconnection with the world.

If you feel able to, share some of this music with those around you, either by asking them to listen or by sharing meaningful lyrics. You don’t need to talk about why the music is important to you, but you can if you feel able. Listening together can be a more passive activity that feels OK, when talking might not, and finding out whether others can experience our musical choices thoughtfully and respectfully gives us a sense of whether or not we can safely share our own thoughts.

If someone you love is having a difficult time, please know that you are not alone, even if it feels that way. If you hear your loved one playing music, please choose to interpret this as communication, rather than making a judgment about the style or perceived quality of the music. If it’s very loud, it might disturb you; if you can, consider how it must be to feel the need to block out everything else, to obliterate anything but this music. If you are able, try to find a way to share this experience with your loved one. Listen with them – ask, without judgment, about the music they like and maybe share some of your own choices. You don’t have to like theirs, they don’t have to like yours. This isn’t a politeness competition. You could describe your feelings in listening to their music, whether it makes you sad, overwhelmed or angry. They might not respond in kind but this shared experience can represent the beginning of reconnection.

There is no doubt that music is the powerful force we all describe but it is not only powerful in and of itself. Music can also be the vehicle for shared experience and increased connection. When we share it with others, it allows us to know and to understand; to be known and to be understood – all the things we know support us in feeling our best.


If you are having a difficult time, you can find support from the following UK-based organisations:

For everyone

Specifically for musicians

  • Help Musicians – a wide range of holistic support, including 24/7 access to mental health support: helpmusicians.org.uk/get-support/mental-health
  • British Association for Performing Arts Medicine (BAPAM) – a wide range of physical and emotional support for performing artists: bapam.org.uk





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