Music as Medicine: 3 Ways Your Favorite Tunes Improve Your Well-Being

By Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYT

She was frustrated by her immobility and chronic pain. In her mind, she felt like she could simply stand up and walk wherever she wanted. But in reality, her body was stuck in a wheelchair.

“I’m in a funk,” she declared in my clinic office. “I don’t want to do anything anymore.” This sort of conversation played on repeat week in and week out.

I was feeling breezy one afternoon after one of my favorite songs played in my earbuds on my way back from lunch (which always spurs me to call my lifelong best friend and serenade her voicemail because she gets me). So that day I asked the frustrated woman in my office, “What’s your favorite music?”

A small smile played on her lips. “Rock and roll,” she said. “1950s. Those were the happiest days of my life.”

I put some Jerry Lee Lewis on my phone. We spent the remainder of our time together listening to Elvis, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, and her favorite, Frank Sinatra. She smiled as she reminisced about the good old days. As she turned to leave my office at the end of her session, she announced that “My Way” was her anthem.

Guilty Pleasures

I think of myself as a “wellness enthusiast.” When I fire up my phone in the morning, I visit my faithful wellness and mind-body blogs to get the most up-to-date health information. All of this before I write in my journal, dive into emails, and tackle my to-do list for the day.

Inevitably I will come across an interview of a celebrity, who is reliably asked to confess a “guilty pleasure.” Sometimes it’s a square of 70% or higher dark chocolate or a Netflix binge. One time, someone even said it was gluten-free quinoa cauliflower pizza crust.

It sounds delicious, actually. But a guilty pleasure? Really?

I’m not a celebrity. But as a wellness professional and voracious consumer of health-related media, I got to thinking about one of my own pleasures that I think, in the wellness world, would render me truly guilty. I am a lover of music: classical music, classic and folk rock, soundscapes, and I adore jazz.

But I must confess, as a child of the ’80s, heavy metal is one of my guilty pleasures. As it did for the woman in my clinic, listening to the music of my childhood feels like lifting a weight off my shoulders and entices me to take a break from everyday stress.

So, if you are looking for new ways to alleviate stress and give yourself a little lift, consider consciously adding music to your health care regimen. Heavy metal may not be your cup of tea, but the music of your youth could be just the thing you need.

How Music Can Help You

Here are three ways your favorite music can coax you back into balance:

1. Music brings you back to your roots.

We wear many hats as we move through life. But beneath all the veneers we put on to fulfill our many responsibilities lies the fundamental essence of who you are. And touching base with that “original you” is a key part of feeling settled and content. For some people, nature can allow for that kind of steadiness. For others, it’s art, yoga, making things with their hands, hiking, or swimming.

I would argue that when you listen to the music of your childhood, you can feel grounded, transported back in time. It can help you to recall the comfort of a childhood home, neighborhood, or community.

When I listen to heavy metal, I feel the essential part of myself that responds to a strong beat. Even on the coldest northeastern days, certain bands conjure the feeling of the warm desert where I grew up. There are inevitably times when the needs and demands of my work and family can reach such a pace I just need some peace and quiet. But sometimes a little Quiet Riot does the trick.

2. Music makes you feel closer to people you care about.

I was into Madonna’s music as a kid. And Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, Boy George—pretty much anything I heard in my dance classes.

There are certainly times when the best way for me to combat stress is a quiet yoga practice or some peppermint tea in my favorite mug. But there are also times when the perfect antidote is to go for a walk and pound the streets to Winger.

My older brother was not exactly chatty, and he largely kept his distance from me. But one day he surprised me by inviting me into his room. He had laid out some cassette tapes near his stereo and pressed play. “This is Van Halen,” he said. The next tape was Rush, and on it went. Aerosmith, Warrant, AC/DC. When CDs became available, he bought me my first album, Def Leppard. I’m certain I still have most of the album memorized.

Even at a young age, my brother must have thought it his responsibility to open up a new world to me. So many bands now remind me of the days when he drove me around town to my various activities, teaching me to use the stick shift with my left hand.

I also reflect on early friendships and different experiences attached to music. Even though I may not be in contact with many old friends from my past, the music reminds me of them and brings me comfort.

3. Music triggers the mind-body connection.

Often when we are running errands, answering emails, surfing the web, or watching television mindlessly, we are separated from our mind-body connection. We are likely to eat without consideration of what we are hungry for (or if we’re hungry at all!). We don’t pay attention to the body’s needs for a stretch, increased activity, or water.

One of the first songs I ever learned to play on an instrument was the piano solo from Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home.” Every time I think about it, my fingers automatically tap out the notes, my feet begin to keep the rhythm, and my head clears of other thoughts. It gives me a welcome reprieve from whatever I am working on. Sometimes, just for a treat, I will pull the song up on my phone and give it a listen.

Think of one of your favorite songs. You may find yourself tapping your fingers or toes to the beat, or altering your breathing as you sing the song in your head. In that moment, your mind and body connect. You are focused on one memory that brings you comfort. You may decide to linger with that song for a while, or the moment could be fleeting. Either way, just by turning your attention to a song you enjoy, you have cleared your mind of stressful triggers and given yourself a break.

Heavy Metal Health

There is mounting evidence for the soothing effects of all types of music on heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, and other indicators of health. It is encouraging to learn that, while music can be purely entertaining, it can also be added to your holistic wellness toolkit, especially if you enjoy music in general.

But while you’re at it, it couldn’t hurt to think back to the music of your childhood and take a listen. Like my guilty pleasure of heavy metal, it may not be exactly what researchers recommend to improve your health. But you may be surprised by how good you feel when you hear the familiar opening chords of the song you chose.

There are certainly times when the best way for me to combat stress is a quiet yoga practice or some peppermint tea in my favorite mug. But there are also times when the perfect antidote is to go for a walk and pound the streets to Winger.


Warren, M. (2016, December 19). The Impact of Music Therapy on Mental Health. Retrieved from

© Copyright 2017 Permission to publish granted by Alena Gerst, LCSW, RYTtherapist in New York City, New York

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