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Will listening to music make me feel better if I have the SADs?

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Brett Jordan
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Listening to music can help with depression and anxiety, according to Indre Viskontas, who is neuroscientist based in San Francisco.

'Tis the season for seasonal depression. Happy Holidays!

If you’re in the camp of people who get the SADs this time of year, or are just generally feeling down and burned out from constantly being in a state of alert about COVID-19, we have some validating news for music fans.

Indre Viskontas is a professor of psychology at San Francisco State University. She’s also an operatic soprano and stage director who has dedicated her career to studying how music impacts our brains. When you listen to music, she says, there are very specific chemicals triggered in the brain, which can lead to feelings of happiness, or at least relief.

“If you’re listening to music that is affecting you, then you’ll have all kinds of signatures in your brain, whether it’s neurochemistry or how it’s active. We can see that it has effects on you.”

There are three brain chemicals she noted specifically that are being released when music is on: prolactin, cortisol and dopamine.

Prolactin

“We all know that a good cry can be very comforting. You can listen to sad music, and it can make you feel better, paradoxically. When you are listening to music that you find comforting, especially if it’s an artist that is sharing an experience that you are also going through, that can lead to the release of a hormone called prolactin, which is most often associated with breastfeeding mothers. It’s also what generates tears. One of the things that prolactin does is give you this sense of warm comfort when you release these emotions. That’s one way in which sad music feels good.”

Cortisol

Cortisol is a hormone that plays a key role in the body’s stress response.

“Not all music is going to have the same effect on all people. Music doesn’t even exist unless there is a brain to extract meaning from sound,” Viskontas says. “If someone says 'I’ve been listening to Barber’s Adagio for Strings and it’s been making me feel so much better,' that might work for that person, but it might not work for someone else. So that’s important. Listening to relaxing music or music that is comforting to you can help decrease cortisol levels in the body, but it’s not going to be a single-dose cure.”

Dopamine

“Music can help, but again, it’s not a single-dose cure. I think it’s really important to see music as a tool,” she says. “If you’re looking for energy boosting, happy music or music with an up-tempo beat can have a very uplifting effect. That is, in part, because it also affects another neurochemical called dopamine, which most people think of as the pleasure chemical. I prefer to think about it as the motivation chemical. One of the things it does is help us get going."

In addition to listening to music, Viskontas stresses the importance of playing music or even talking about music with other people.

“Aside from these chemicals, music can be used in many different ways to shape our brains. The musician’s brain is often described as the model for neuro-plasticity. It’s very easy to see how training to play a musical instrument can change your brain,” Viskontas says. “A baby first learns to speak by listening to the melody of their caregiver’s voice. It’s not the meaning they recognize, it’s the tone. To me, music captures the mosaic of what it means to be human in so many different ways. I like to say that it’s a lens we can use to understand ourselves better.”