Using music to increase wellbeing

By music therapist Dr Stella Compton Dickinson

It is rare to have absolute silence. Music is all around us, it is made up of vibrations of different frequencies, heard in the sounds of nature, the sea, the birds, even the electrical sound of the fridge has a frequency that hums. Within the universe, the musical elements of ‘time’ and ‘rhythm’ are involved in, for example, how the earth and the moon interact with the cycle of the tides, day, night and month.

Music can energise us, or relax us, it can remind us of past events and people, it can help us bond with our fellows, or whip us up into a frenzy.

In eastern philosophy the mystery of the beginning of all life is understood as starting when a single vibration began, to which there was a response thus creating a resonance. People may either ‘resonate’ in harmony with each other or grate on each other’s nerves. The way people interact with each other is called the ‘psychodynamics’. Music has dynamics too, meaning whether it is loud (and scary or emboldening) or soft (and gentle or tremulous) or anything in between.

Music can be used in many ways to enhance our wellbeing – at work, and at home. Here are a few ways to use music:

  1.  Listening to music

Music is an art form available to almost every human being.  Anyone can explore safe and appropriate ways in which music can lift their mood. In public places, such as certain London Underground Stations, classical music is played to enhance a calm mood across a busy, crowded environment where people might otherwise get stressed and then become more aggressive. Healthcare practitioners frequently use music to stimulate a better ambient mood, for example in a secure hospital unit. However the same piece of music will affect individuals in different ways – so be mindful of what you choose.

  1. Music to reduce anxiety

Whether music is played on a hospital ward, in a Zumba class, a Pilates class, a religious ceremony, or a military cavalcade with men and horses – music underpins the movements and pace of events through the tempo, rhythms, mood and harmonies.

Running and exercise releases endorphins that are known as ‘happy’ hormones.

A play list of suitable tracks can energize and then calm people, for example during physical exercise classes followed by relaxation and meditative music to finish.

I always encourage my clients to develop a varied exercise routine because using our bodies can calm our minds, improve co-ordination and balance and reduce the symptoms of anxiety. Without physical activity one’s thoughts and worried feelings may get caught up and these can start to fester inside us. These experiences need an appropriate outlet or otherwise they can make one feel sick or wobbly.

Often this sort of mental difficulty of anxiously avoiding difficult social events for example, can be misunderstood as simply a digestive or eating problem. This sort of anxiety is unprocessed energy, which can be expended in music therapy because clients move about the room to play drums or tuned percussion or smaller instruments, rather than just sitting in a chair. Moving and being creative can help people to extend themselves and to be more spontaneous in having fun, and then they frequently want to  start to understand themselves better.

Music can also be used in a manipulative and negative way to whip up a fanatical group consciousness in a crowd, as if they have lost their individual will to choose. Alternatively, to bond together such as at a football match, when part of the crowd may start to act as one in chanting for their team.

  1. Learning a Musical Instrument

 How about offering employees the opportunity to learn to play a music instrument?

Practising a musical instrument is associated with enhanced verbal ability, the ability to work things out and improved motor co-ordination. This is because a lot of components and hours of discipline are involved in becoming accomplished on an instrument. The degree of success depends on many factors including the teaching techniques, and for an adult learner to have both a witness to his efforts as well as undisturbed practice time. I have taught my instrument, the oboe, all my adult life and I apply some neuro-scientific therapeutic principles to this teaching.

  1. Music Therapy

Music Therapy in the United Kingdom is a masters level training and central in this model is jointly creating improvised music that fits the mood, time and place. The music therapist is a skilled musician but she does not show off, she is there to help the natural creative abilities of any individual start to come through. This is wonderful because all patients can have a go – even if they have never seen a real musical instrument. This experience can be exciting rather than frightening when it is offered sensitively and with respect.

Once a person has expressed their inner feelings non-verbally through jointly-creating music within a trusting therapeutic relationship –then they may be able to more easily recognize what they are feeling and start to find the right words to be able to talk about their problems and thereby receive help from others.


Dr Stella Compton-Dickinson is a London-based Health and Care Profession council registered music therapist, accredited supervisor, professional oboist and lecturer, UK Council for Psychotherapy registered Cognitive Analytic Therapist and Supervisor. She is author of The Clinician’s Guide to Forensic Music Therapy (Jessica Kingsley Publishers), and  has her own private practice and twenty years’ experience in the National Health Service as a Clinician, Head of Arts Therapies and Clinical Research Lead her research was awarded the 2016 Ruskin Medal for the most impactful doctoral research.