“Playing lifts you out of yourself into a delirious place,” the famous cellist Jacquline du Pré reportedly once said. Du Pré may have been describing her experience of playing the cello, but her words could just as well apply to the guitar, keyboard, drums, or any other musical instrument. Something transpires in the course of playing a musical instrument that lifts people to a place of transcendence.
I witness this phenomenon most clearly within the context of music therapy, where one of my roles is teaching music lessons to patients in substance abuse treatment. Before beginning guitar, keyboard or drum lessons, many of these patients have never played a musical instrument. They are musical beginners in every sense of the word, yet by the time they leave rehab have a solid foundation with a new instrument.
Better yet, by the time they leave rehab, patients have begun to experience the mental health benefits of their new musical pursuit. They include the following….
Playing a Musical Instrument Builds Self-Awareness
The act of playing a musical instrument channels and releases previously untapped energy and self-expression. This process doesn’t require musical abilities either: It is purely the expressing of oneself and the thoughts and feelings that would otherwise lie dormant, were it not for the vehicle of music that causes them to come alive.
Music awakens these thoughts and feelings in a way that other outlets for self-expression often cannot. I see this dynamic in the peer support groups that I lead. When patients have the opportunity to perform and express their inner feelings with their peers, this unleashes their creative self. As they engage this creative self, their self-awareness grows. Playing a musical instrument is one of the best ways to facilitate this growth process.
Musical Expression Can Reduce Anxiety, Depression and Stress
An article in Forbes Magazine described the many ways in which creative expression can improve health and happiness, starting with documented reductions in levels of anxiety, depression and stress. The same article gave at least one scientific explanation for how this therapeutic dynamic occurs. Apparently, repetitive creative motions—strumming a guitar or playing keys on a piano, for example—trigger a spike in the brain of the “feel good” chemical dopamine. These higher levels of dopamine correlate with a more positive sense of wellbeing: happiness.
In this way, playing a musical instrument serves as a natural and healthy substitute for the destructive, artificial dopamine rush that drugs and alcohol once provided. And, simultaneously, playing a musical instrument lowers blood pressure (which is associated with greater mental and emotional calm).
Music Gives the Learner an Ability to Self-Soothe Without Substances
One of the biggest reasons people turn to drugs and alcohol in the first place is to self-medicate painful and difficult emotions and sensations. Playing a musical instrument is a healthy coping mechanism by which people learn to self-soothe without the aid of drugs or alcohol.
Often the emotions and sensations that a person is trying to self-medicate are in fact symptomatic of an underlying mental health disorder, such as an anxiety disorder, major depression or bipolar disorder. Similarly, chronic pain and related mental health symptoms are often behind opiate abuse in today’s epidemic.
Playing a musical instrument is a healthy form of self-soothing. It gives people an outlet for processing anger, sadness and other difficult emotions. It also is a means by which to self-regulate emotions and manage mood swings. Whatever the tune is, that’s what sets your mood.
If someone has bipolar disorder, a mental health condition characterized by dramatic fluctuations in mood, just strumming three chords on a guitar can help them change their mood. Strum those three chords with passion and exuberance, and it will get the blood going in someone who is feeling depressed and low in energy. Strum those three chords slowly in a more mantra-like melody and it calms down someone who is feeling “hypomanic” and agitated. In this way, playing a musical instrument promotes emotional stability and is an effective mood management tool.
Playing an Instrument Improves Interpersonal Skills
Interpersonal skills refer to the ability to interact, connect and communicate with others. Research has shown these skills are fundamental to mental health— but how might musical expression improve these skills?
Playing a musical instrument releases many of the inhibitions that are barriers to interpersonal connection. There’s nothing like sitting around with a guitar and jiving, singing or improvising with a small group of people. The language of music can help even the most shy and introverted person come out of their shell and connect with strangers in a peer support group.
The connections that music fosters are at a deeper, emotional level, too. For example, I’ll ask one of my groups to request a “feel good” song and then afterwards invite them to share in one word how the song made them feel. The exercise invariably returns a very interesting range of emotions, from “joyous” and “hopeful,” to “serene” and “energetic;” and in the process of sharing, people build meaningful connections with one another.
Deeper self-awareness. Less anxiety, depression and stress. Better emotional self-regulation. More effective interpersonal skills. These are just four mental health benefits of playing a musical instrument, based on my experience as a music therapist. I suspect there are more.
Gary Wayne has been a musician for over 40 years, having performed locally, nationally and internationally from his home base in South Florida. He directs the music and fine arts therapy program at FHE Health, a national addiction and mental health treatment center.