Why Music Is The Latest Wellness and Mental Health Trend

Sound is wellness’ latest focus, with new research showing that it strikes a chord in our brains.
by Rachel Genevieve Chia
healing music

The Teng Ensemble musicians are behind Music for Mindfulness. (Photo: The Teng Company)

Celebrated 19th-century composer Beethoven once declared that music is “the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life”. Two hundred years later, science has evidence to back the pianist’s claims: binaural beats influence brainwaves to relax uptight minds. This is achieved by playing two tones of slightly different frequencies, which the brain “hears” as a unique sound.

“Pairing music with a dynamic progression of binaural beats from theta to delta waves associated with deep sleep reduces anxiety, and relaxation eases listeners into a state of lower anxiety,” explains Samuel Wong, who holds a PhD in music.

His arts nonprofit, The Teng Company, recently released an album of wellness tracks claiming to be the first to meld binaural beats and Chinese instruments. Music for Mindfulness is rooted in science, the fruit of collaboration with researchers from the Singapore Institute of Technology, music therapists, and psychologists.

Tested on stressed-out listeners, the tunes proved more relaxing than quotidian bops, says Wong, who — along with all others interviewed for this piece — pointed to the pandemic as a tipping point for mental health, catapulting mindfulness from bohemian pastime to mainstream concern.

While booming wellness practices, from yoga to spas to hypnotherapy to reiki, tapped its soundscape to soothe, music, quite literally, stayed in the background. However, that is changing as more musicians produce tracks that are themselves the star.

“Music is appreciated by our parasympathetic nervous system, which needs attention in the frenetic pace of modern living,” says Danielle Van de Velde, who has published over 50 music and meditation tracks on Spotify. “We are all in the age of sensory overload, with high uncertainty in job and capital markets, and world politics. Music moves us out of our thought field and into the felt intelligence of the body.”

Practicing mindfulness through music

healing music

Relaxing music makes us relaxed, but things don’t always need to be so chill. Dancing to upbeat salsa rhythms to stay present is a key practice of “mindfulness- based strategic awareness training” — a new type of organisational psychology training — that could be harnessed by companies to increase productivity, says Jochen Reb.

“This is mindfulness in action, not just sitting quietly on a meditation pillow,” says Reb, a professor of organisational behaviour at Singapore Management University and director of the Mindfulness Initiative at the Lee Kong Chian School of Business.

“Music can help bring people into the moment in an open, curious manner, and connect with each other.”

Credit: Laura Yates, founder of Secret Sunrise Singapore.

Promoting these benefits through music is the entire proposition of Secret Sunrise, a wellness movement originating from South Africa that AFP News dubbed “the latest urban craze” in 2016. In its “silent” Singapore sessions, open to private or corporate bookings, facilitators lead headphone-donning participants in dance, connection, and mindfulness to playlists, specifically curated to “calm, uplift, inspire, motivate, and unite people in the workplace in a subtle way,” says Secret Sunrise Singapore founder Laura Yates.

“We are rhythmic beings, and are greatly affected by vibrations around us,” she adds. “It makes sense that music is a vibration that is able to bring us into a state of present-moment awareness through active listening, and allow us to drop into our heart space.”

Credit: Danielle Van de Velde has published over 50 music and meditation tracks on Spotify.

Demand is growing for musical creations that unlock mental benefits. Van de Velde, a former corporate executive  who worked in property and finance across Sydney, London, and New York, says her tunes — created with Australian musician Sam Joole — began as a small pre-Covid project that has morphed into something more, with a small but dedicated and growing listener count.

Beyond meditating to her own music to test its efficacy, she and Joole now choose a meditation track every now and then to turn into a smooth Sunday lounge track.

We are all in the age of sensory overload, with high uncertainty in job and capital markets, and world politics. Music moves us out of our thought field and into the felt intelligence of the body. – Danielle Van de Velde, meditation music artist

Credit: The Teng Ensemble musicians are behind Music for Mindfulness.

The Teng Company, too, packages science in a way that appeals to the masses, partnering with social service agencies to introduce its album as adjunctive therapy for those grappling with mood issues.

Co-founder and creative director Wong, a pipa player himself, attributes the healing ability of the tunes to the therapeutic powers of Chinese music, believed since ancient times to promote well-being and health.

He adds: “The five notes in the Chinese musical scale, gong, shang, jue, zhi, yu, which have been used to treat mind-body illness, correlate with the five-element theory in Chinese medicine, which consists of wood, fire, earth, water, and metal.”

If all this sounds a bit woo-woo, consider that a plethora of studies have found Chinese music effective at reducing depression and cancer symptoms in patients.

It even leads untrained minds into the artistic plane: in 2021, researchers from China’s Southwest University found that, when tested on non-musically trained listeners, classical Chinese music “effectively induced aesthetic emotion and produced multidimensional aesthetic experiences”.

Changing the tune of music wellness

healing music

Credit: Secret Sunrise participants listening to music.

Human cultures have linked music with wellness for thousands of years, but what is changing now is that scientists are steadily accruing evidence on the efficacy of music for health, says Kat Agres, director for the Centre for Music and Health at the National University of Singapore and assistant professor at the university’s Yong Siew Toh Conservatory of Music.

“We now know that music can reduce physiological measures of stress and even stimulate brain plasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences,” adds Agres, who holds a PhD in psychology from Cornell and plays the cello.

New developments she has seen in the field include embedding music in medical or commercial technologies to help listeners regulate their mental state. Her own creation is a “music-based brain computer interface” that lets people “hear” their emotions. Based on a user’s neural activity, the system generates music — slow and calm for a relaxed mind; fast and animated for an excited one.

“If the listener aims to achieve a state of happiness, for example, the musical neurofeedback can guide them to their desired emotional state by letting them know whether the changes they are making to their mental state are taking them in the right direction,” says Agres.

Do carefully selected tones, placed at just the right frequency, packaged into comfortable albums, truly have the power to right your wrongs? Yes, the science seems to say so — as did Beethoven, who incisively observed music to be “the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge”.

“Music is the electrical soil in which the spirit lives, thinks, and invents,” the composer and pianist said. If our minds are capable of unlocking their maximum potential with the right rhythms, then let us listen.

This story originally published on The Peak Singapore.

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