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  • Writer's pictureLehandra Riley

The Holistic Power of Music

According to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History as far back as 40,000 years ago, humans were creating musical instruments and two- and three- dimensional images of the world around them. It is therefore safe to say that music has been a part of us from a very early age in human history.

Much speculation exists on the purpose of music and why it has such a profound impact on our lives. In Charles Darwin’s private notebook (written between 1838 and 1839), Darwin speculated on the origins of music deep in our evolutionary past. He notes: “Does music bear any relation to the period when men communicated before language was invented? Were musical notes the language of passion and hence does music now excite our feelings?”

As much as I agree with Darwin’s notion that music could have been used as a language tool and is notably described as “the language of passion”, it is important to note that music has a whole range of purposes. Music not only evokes our feelings and speaks to our souls, but it is also part of sacred spiritual practices, dancing, recreation, education and more.

How does music promote wellness, holistically?

The wellness wheel (as first created by Dr Bill Hettler) with its eight dimensions is a useful tool to illustrate and explore the various areas of wellness and their place in our lives. Similarly, we can use this wellness wheel to explore the fundamental impact music has holistically within our lives. As with any other discipline or component music might have a profound impact on some areas of wellness more than others.

The Holistic Impact of Music as Informed by the Wellness Wheel:


As mentioned above “music as the language of passion” has a profound impact on our emotional wellbeing. That impact is entirely subjective and varies from person to person, in the same way our music tastes vary. Music that is a trigger for one person can be a glimmer (opposite of a trigger) for another. Our limbic system, which is involved in the processing of emotions and memory, lights up when our ears hear music. When we hear pleasant or moving music, dopamine is released which makes us experience sensations of pleasure and wellbeing. Furthermore, when our brains become familiar with a particular song that speaks to us, our bodies may release dopamine upon hearing the first few notes of that song.

Music can also affect our mood even if we cannot recognise or replicate the notes and rhythm. Scientific studies have shown numerous instances where people who have suffered brain injury and lost their ability to distinguish melodies were able to recognise the emotion expressed by the music. This also rings true with people who suffer from dementia or Alzheimer's disease. Music also has a remarkable impact on memory and has been proven to improve especially verbal memory and overall cognition.

Furthermore, music helps in regulating our nervous system by sending signals to our sympathetic nervous system. Listening to the human voice especially helps with safety signals. When we hear the mood of the music, unconsciously our nervous systems pick up cues from it. We then become more aware and begin to attach our own meanings to the music we listen to.


Vibing to music in the workplace is sure to put a stride in your step and a smile on your face. Many employees experience a positive increase in mood, productivity and overall happiness when listening to music in the workplace. Music especially engages your brain when you are engaging in repetitive tasks. It also helps in preventing burn out by acting as a mood booster and nervous system regulator. Music (including ambient noise) has been proven to lower blood pressure, your heart rate, and the level of stress hormones your body produces. When you experience stress in the workplace, calming music can serve as a wonderful tool to reduce stress and renew focus.

As previously mentioned, music is a great tool when it comes to memory and information retention. Stress can make it harder to focus and negatively impact memory. Music serves as a remedy to this by lowering stress levels and promoting memory and recall abilities. Music helps motivate us when we feel tired. It can even help us in completing tasks with a physical component and help us cross the finish line with that one arduous task we have been labouring with.

It is important to consider our co-workers and clients in the workplace. Music might not always be a suitable tool in the workplace as it might disturb others. Headphones may be a suitable alternative to this. It is also important to not listen to music at too high volumes for long periods of time when wearing headphones as it can have adverse effects on our eardrums. Music in the workplace should always be done with safety in mind and should not distract us or others from our tasks.


According to Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences (MI), music forms part of several different human intelligences that is relatively independent of one another. However, they can be combined in a variety of adaptive ways by individuals and cultures. The fact that Gardner classified music as being an intelligence unto itself is meaningful and worth exploring.

As a music teacher MI has played an integral part in my approach to music education. I appreciate how music could play a collaborative role in conjunction with other fundamental education subjects. Music has roots in science, mathematics, language, physical education, and art. It should therefore come as no surprise that according to the American Psychological Association, it has been found that children (on average) who learn to play a musical instrument for many years and is part of a high school band or orchestra, are the equivalent of about one academic year ahead of their peers, in particular with regards to English, Mathematics and Science.

Music is also a great tool to use when it comes to studying and learning new tasks. While relaxing our bodies, music boosts our brain function and processing skills. In this way we learn by enjoyment, making music the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down.

Environmental and Financial

Music not only improves our immediate environments, but also the environment as a whole. Streaming music is a material-free way of enjoying music. Music formats of the past, such as vinyl records and CDs, are often made from toxic, non-recyclable materials (such as plastics and crude oil). However, it is important to be aware that music streaming comes with hidden negative environmental consequences. Even though, streaming is material-free, it is important to be mindful when it comes to how much and how often we stream music from our devices.

When we stream music, or devices access electronic files that are stored on active, cooled services located at data centres around the world. Not only do these centres use a vast amount of energy, the retrieval and transmission of the music we stream via Wi-Fi or the internet, also requires energy. The device music is listened to with also uses batteries which are drained when consistently being used (often at a higher rate than usual when streaming music). Therefore, according to environmental sources, it comes as no surprise that music streaming can be responsible for up to four percent of the global carbon footprint.

To combat this, research regarding the carbon footprint of music streaming suggests that a good goal is to try to limit the amount of music we stream to fewer than five hours each day. It also helps to stream music from smaller devices such as cell phones as opposed to TVs. Another small change we can make, that has a big impact is to download the music we frequently listen to, instead of streaming it each time. Not only is this better for the environment, but it will save you a lot of data costs!

Listening to music today is much more affordable than years before. We can listen to music for free or affordably on various platforms such as YouTube, YouTube Music, Spotify, Apple Music and more. With the closing of music retail shops such as Musica, traditional material methods of consuming music are becoming a thing of the past. These methods do not have to be lost on us completely as we can easily access CDs and vinyls in second-hand and thrift shops for bargain prices. In this way we are reusing and recycling making it an environmental and financial win-win.


Music is a powerful tool when it comes to strengthening social bonds and renewing our connection with one another by increasing contact, coordination and cooperation with others. This is seen when we engage in music at social gatherings, go to music concerts or festivals, make music together, participate in music rich activities such as karaoke and merely just listen to music together wherever we are.

Music has also been shown to activate the circuit in our brain that helps us to understand what others are feeling and thinking and to predict their behaviour. Scientists refer to this as theory of mind, which is linked to empathy. Empathy is built and nurtured through music processes that include playing music, sharing feelings, imitation, and collaboration. When we engage in music activities such as dancing and listening, we often connect to our emotions as well as the emotions of others. Tapping, moving, and synchronising music-making encourages group cohesion, increases cooperation, feelings of closeness and increases perceived similarity. Furthermore, making music together promotes contact with others and acts as an instrument for social interaction.

Music also aids in cultural cohesion by providing us with an opportunity to experience music from various cultures and places in the world. Music is an emotional language that tells cultural stories of people far and wide, with deep emotional connection of events from our past, present and future. These musical stories can be passed on from generation to generation, creating a sense of community, continuity and loyalty to one’s tribe. In this way music communicates belonging, which may increase our sense of safety and obligation towards our social group.


When it comes to our bodies, music has been proven as a natural alternative when it comes to pain relief. Common examples of this are women who listen to music when in labour and loved ones who play music while sitting with family members who are close to death. The pain-relieving abilities of music have been attributed to music’s ability to distract. When our minds are focused on a beautiful memory, we do not notice our physical pain that much. Music also aids in the release of dopamine, endorphins and catecholamine levels, increasing our overall feelings of well-being, in turn decreasing our pain perception.

Scientists suspect that music’s effect on our bodies may be partially rooted in the fact that sound waves are essentially vibrations. It has been shown that vibroacoustic therapy uses low frequency sound to produce vibrations that are applied directly to the body. More than seven scientific studies have shown improvement in motor function in individuals suffering with cerebral palsy when they were treated with vibroacoustic therapy.

According to a study published in the National Library of Medicine (USA), it is crucial for patients with chronic pain to believe that they will regain a lost sense of control over their pain. Often ignorance about what is happening and learned helplessness exacerbate suffering, increasing anxiety. Increased control may be a key component to lessening disability and improving quality of life through independence and an ability to cope. Music can help with this as it assists with relaxation, tension relief, distraction, anxiety, and boredom. It also helps build gratitude, lessen loneliness, and promote positive memories.


Music often plays a central role in the spiritual life of a person and community. This is seen throughout history, as music has been used in spiritual ceremonies such as acapella singing, drums, chants and more. Music and spirituality go so well together as it not only unites people within a spiritual community, but also touches on shared feelings of mystery, awe, and attraction. Furthermore, music represents the struggle of reaching collective consciousness, which it can never express.

Music has a profound transcendent property that connects us to something greater than ourselves. It has the power to match and alter moods, evoke, and sustain emotion, induce trance or ecstasy states, express worship and entertain. It is, however, important to note that sound (as a branch of music) plays a more profound role when it comes to the spiritual properties of music, as some spiritual practices only recognise sound and not music as we often define it.

This is often seen in meditation practices where the Om sound is uttered. Om represents the primal vibration from which all other creation and sounds emerge. It is considered by ancient texts that one who attains Om, merges with the Absolute. Furthermore, scientific studies on Om suggest that the mental and verbal repetition of Om results in physiological alertness, increased sensitivity along with synchronicity of certain biorhythms and increased sensitivity to sensory transmission. 

Whatever your spiritual beliefs and convictions may be, may music only assist in enhancing your fundamental spiritual well-being.

In closing, since as far back as we can remember, music activates almost all brain regions and networks. It can help keep countless brain pathways and networks strong, including networks involved in well-being, learning, cognitive function quality of life, social connection, and happiness. It therefore absolutely affects all areas of human holism and wellness. When you listen to music that speaks to your soul may you be reminded that we are all connected as humans through this powerful experience we call music.


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