Here’s Why Listening to Music Boosts Your Mood

Ari Cofer Fact Checked
A photo of a woman with headphones on
© Alba Vitta / Stocksy United

The right song can set the perfect mood. Need a good cry? Put on your saddest playlist. Want to feel energized at the gym? Find a song with a quick tempo and a fun catchy hook. 

Music can also transport you to a different headspace, like those songs that are must-listens each time they come on because they evoke fond memories. 

The connection between music and your brain and body is real: a growing number of studies show that in certain settings music can be both mentally and physically healing. Here’s how music can affect everything from your mood to your experience of physical pain. 

Why music makes you feel good 

On a basic level, music can trigger the release of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is part of the brain’s reward system and helps you feel pleasure and motivation, increases focus and improves mood. Ever get chills when listening to your favorite song? Dopamine could be why. 

A range of studies has also looked at everything from music’s effects on the brain’s limbic system, which helps process emotions, to whether music can decrease cortisol levels or reduce blood pressure. While it’s difficult to make sweeping claims from this research about what’s going on in the brain, it seems clear that music can help relieve stress and anxiety and make you feel good.  

How music can provide pain relief 

Researchers and doctors are also finding that music can influence how patients feel physical pain. 

“In patients with acute and chronic pain, music has been shown to reduce pain and sleep disturbance,” says Dr. Heather Tick, an integrative pain specialist at UW Medical Center – Roosevelt.  

Think of music as a sound-wave superhero, distracting your brain from pain signals so you can do things pain-free ... like sleep. 

In one study, Tick explains that in a palliative care setting (places of specialized care for those with serious illnesses), music therapy produces significant improvement in anxiety, depression and overall mood among people experiencing physical pain. 

If you’ve ever wondered why it’s sometimes recommended to listen to music during labor, this is why. The dopamine response heightens feel-good emotions and seems to decrease your perception of pain during those not-so-feel-good experiences. 

Music therapy for mental health and pain 

Given these benefits, many mental health experts use music in a therapeutic setting. No, music therapy doesn’t consist of your doctor giving you a curated playlist, writing you a prescription to attend your favorite band’s concert (as incredible as that would be) or listening to meditative sound baths. Think of it as a traditional therapy session where you work with a counselor who has training to use music — whether listening to it or playing it —  to help while working on therapeutic goals such as improving your mood, helping settle your stress and reducing pain symptoms. 

And you don’t have to schedule a music therapy session to start feeling the positive benefits of music — next time you’re feeling stressed, anxious or need a pick-me-up, try listening to your favorite songs or instrumental music. Practice mindfulness while listening to music, nature sounds or chanting to enhance your ability to focus and experience the sensations and feelings as they present themselves moment to moment. Allow yourself to connect with the music and with your body … and it’s okay to dance, even if someone else is watching.