The relationship between music & wellbeing

Why do we listen to music?

The functions of music listening (FML) have been documented across hundreds of research papers using a variety of methodologies including surveys, behavioural testing and neuroimaging.

One thing is for certain; there are multiple FML that can vary as much for one person within each day as it does across individuals.

A recent paper has attempted to galvanise multiple FML into a model that links music listening directly to enhanced wellbeing. The paper is by Jenny Groarke and Michael Hogan, and was published by Psychology of Music in 2015 (DOI: 10.1177/0305735615591844)

There are affective, social and cognitive FML yet the affective reasons (linked to emotion) have received by far the most attention in the literature. This is in line with Juslin and Sloboda (2010) who report that mood change is the most ‘important’ reason for listening to music. Cognitive reasons include increasing concentration and attention, while social reasons include bonding and group cohesion.

How do these different FML interact with each other, if they do at all?

And how are FML linked to enhanced wellbeing across the human lifespan?

Before tackling these questions it is important to briefly define ‘wellbeing’. This is a part of the paper that intrigued me since there are many different perspectives on the meaning of wellbeing that span multiple academic disciplines.

The present authors touch on the following angles of wellbeing:

  • Traditional perspective – greater ratio of positive to negative emotions, and a sense of satisfaction with life (Diener, Eunkook, Lucas, & Smith, 1999)
  • Eudaimonic perspective – routes to wellbeing include pleasure, meaning, and engagement (Seligman, 2002), with engagement and meaning being more important than simple hedonic pleasure, which is more likely to lead to only short-term wellbeing enhancement.

One angle missing from these perspectives is the importance of relative perception. In this regard I have always been convinced by a definition of wellbeing provided by Marks (2007): Doing well – feeling good.

This definition, from economics, emphasises that how a person perceives their level of wellbeing is dependent on how their levels compare to those that they consider their social peers.

In any case, all wellbeing definitions have two clear threads: 1. how we feel and 2. our level of activity (doing).

We know that music can induce positive emotions therefore the potential of music to enhance wellbeing through the affective (feeling) component is clear.

The present authors make a good point that the other side of the coin, activity (doing), has been rather neglected by comparison. A few studies, such as those by Alex Lamont & Susan Hallam (education), and Raymond MacDonald & Stephen Clift (music/singing groups), have shown how music can bring people together and that measurable enhancements in wellbeing are a positive consequence.

Such shared or solo musical experiences are often linked to reports of flow, that state where a person is able to feel totally engaged with an activity and perceive a sense of achievement on conclusion.

These activities also promote a sense of social place and connection (where do I fit in?), an important aspect of wellbeing in the model described by Keyes (1998), which distinguishes subjective, psychological, and social wellbeing dimensions. This model is closer to reflecting the social consciousness aspect of wellbeing that is at the heart of the ‘Doing well – feeling good’ (Marks, 2007)


At this stage there are a number of ideas relating to FML. According to the authors of the present paper however, existing FML taxonomies do not examine…

‘…interdependencies between FML, or allow for the development of structural hypotheses in relation to how different functions of music are related in bringing about enhanced psychological functioning’.

This is the purpose of their paper.

The authors adopt a new approach called collective intelligence methodology, or IM. IM is a problem solving method that is used to understand complex systems with many interdependencies. The authors used this approach to determine which FML are considered most adaptive for wellbeing and how different FML interact together to enhance wellbeing.


The participants were two groups of younger adults (18-29) and two groups of older adults (60-75), who all liked to listen to music. Firstly, participants were asked to write down, individually, the reasons they liked to listen to music.

These ideas were then all posted to a wall on sticky notes and the notes were clarified between members of the group (without evaluation at this stage)

Once all the FML ideas were on the wall the groups voted for their top ideas in terms of importance for wellbeing.

Then came the computers.

The authors introduced software that utilises Interpretive Structural Modelling (ISM; Warfield & Cárdenas, 1994) to impose structure on the ideas. The groups considered the full range of relational ideas, such as; “In the context of increasing wellbeing, does FML-A significantly enhance FML-B?’ “Yes” and “No” votes were added into the software and a map of relations was accumulated as a result.


Examples of the models generated by both groups are shown below:

Figure 1

Figure 4

I enjoyed looking over these figures. They show many familiar FML (138 were generated in total!) but for the first time show relations between them and theoretical pathways to wellbeing.

Finally, the authors grouped all the FML into higher order categories to describe the ways in which music can enhance wellbeing. Their final 9 were:

  • Affective (mood enhancement, increased arousal)
  • Social (in group formation, atmosphere)
  • Cognitive (stimulation of thought)
  • Eudaimonic (personal growth, transcendence, awe)
  • Music facilitated goal attainment (motivation, persistence)
  • Everyday music listening (background, dance)
  • Music-focused listening (education, appreciation)
  • Music as a sleep aid
  • Music listening to create a personal space.

Younger adults generated more FMLs related to affect regulation, reminiscence, goal attainment, and everyday music listening

Older adults generated more ideas related to transcendence, positive affect, and social bonding/connection

St Christopher's Community Choir

St Christopher’s Community Choir
www achat viagra

What can we conclude?

Affective (feeling) FML were amongst the most popular for adults of all ages and this consistency gives us another reason why mood regulation is so often identified as one of the most important reasons for music listening today.

However, this study has a new twist on this old tale.  Mood regulation in the present model is a secondary outcome of listening to music with primary aims, reasons to seek out music things that then can enhance mood regulation, being experiences of reminiscence and transcendence.

This finding is of particular interest to me in relation to my work with individuals living with dementia. It makes sense to me that mood regulation is a secondary outcome of other primary drivers relating to memory experiences and social connections.

The link between music and social bonding was particularly emphasised by the older adults in the present study, with younger adults being as likely to use music for isolation and privacy. This interaction finding indicates an age related change in the way music can support wellbeing, an interesting idea that needs more research.

In contrast to some historical models that claim music supports wellbeing by its role as a stabilizer of emotion and self, the present work emphasises the FML related to strong and mostly positive emotional experiences, reminiscence, transcendence, and growth (eudaimonic perspective).

An improved theory-driven account of the links between music listening and wellbeing across populations, such as that given in the present study, will lead us to more informed and reliable interventions in the future based on each individual and their particular FML.


Diener, E., Eunkook, M. S., Lucas, R. E., & Smith, H. L. (1999). Subjective well-being: Three decades of progress. Psychological Bulletin, 125(2), 276–302.

Juslin, P. N., & Sloboda, J. A. (Eds.). (2010). Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Keyes, C. L. (1998). Social well-being. Social Psychology Quarterly, 61(2), 121–140.

Marks, N (2007) Verbal contribution at the WeD conference, Bath, June 28th-30th.

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realise your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.

Warfield, J. N., & Cárdenas, R. (1994). A handbook of interactive management. USA: Ajar Publishing Company.