Music, singing and wellbeing: what works?

What music and singing interventions work to improve wellbeing of adults? This research from the What Works Centre for Wellbeing looks at all the available evidence to support better decision-making.

Participatory music or singing interventions including listening and performing. This includes music therapy offered to enhance wellbeing but excludes clinical treatment, paid professional musicians, clinical music therapy, and clinical procedures such as surgery, medical tests and diagnostics.

It is nothing new to hear that singing in groups can improve wellbeing. Indeed, there is a particular depth of evidence to support this for older people.

It is intuitive that some of the wellbeing benefits are due to the group-based nature of singing together: reducing loneliness, anxiety, depression, feeling connected, enhancing morale. However, listening to music in itself can also have wellbeing benefits. There is strong evidence that listening to music can alleviate anxiety and improve wellbeing in young adults and promising evidence that listening to music may be an effective way to prevent or reduce depression in older people.

There is promising evidence that listening to music even for a short period of time can enhance mood for young adults.  Listening to relaxing music can alleviate anxiety and anger in prison populations. Listening to music during exercise may enhance the positive effects of physical activity on the state of anxiety in young adults. Promising evidence shows that participants from marginalised groups, such as refugees, value the benefits of group singing and the opportunity to learn, build relationships and engage in a meaningful exchange with the wider community.  Initial evidence shows that active music making in community choirs and music ensembles may be an effective way to support individuals from marginal communities, enabling them to build a sense of community and share culture and heritage.

Evidence has also highlighted wider benefits from music activities – in helping older people to develop self-identity, to express spirituality and reminisce; and the significance and meaning associated with song-writing and performing. There is strong evidence that structured music therapy can reduce the intensity of stress, anxiety and depression in pregnant women and initial evidence that listening to relaxing music can enhance wellbeing and mood in pregnant women.

  • There is a strong case for local authorities, trusts and foundations to continue supporting of music and singing activities which enhance and maintain subjective wellbeing in adults.
  • Trusts and foundations, or any organisation funding music or singing interventions, can play an important role in the evidence base.
  • But what works best? How does this compare to other activities? We still need to find out more.

This first summary looks at music and singing for healthy adults. A briefing focusing specifically on music and wellbeing for adults with diagnosed conditions and dementia will be available in December 2016.

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