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How to Improve Mental States by Playing Music

Music is amazing. It’s well-documented by now that both listening to and playing music can help people mentally and emotionally. As a musician, this is another tool in your tool belt to increase the quality of your life. Below are four ways to improve mental states by playing music.

If improving your mental state through music is something you’d like to do on a regular basis, I highly recommend putting together a folder of music that’s for this specific purpose. Below are some tips on how to play music to relax, ease depression, increase focus, and improve memory.

1. Relax

Perhaps you were already aware that listening to certain music relaxes you, but playing relaxing music can do the same thing, and possibly even more so.

Two things that are known to help with relaxation are meditation and exercise. Meditation relaxes you through repetition and focusing the mind, while exercise relaxes you through endorphins and an improved self-image.

When you are playing music, you are more mentally and physically involved than when you’re just listening, and it does all of these things mentioned above with meditation and exercise!

How to Relax by Playing Music

If you’re playing in an effort to relax, be sure to pick something you enjoy and that isn’t too hard (unless you find that focusing on a challenge is a relaxing distraction).

Consider playing something slow. There’s evidence that a slower tempo, say 60 beats per minute, can slow the rhythm of your body, including heart rate, breathing, and brain waves.

Often people find that improvisation can be a very relaxing activity because you are expressing yourself and can become absorbed in the creativity. Soon I will be publishing an article about improvisation for relaxation, so stay tuned for that!

2. Ease Depression

As mentioned above, playing music releases endorphins. All of the information about music and relaxation also applies to depression.

I always recommend that my students set small, achievable goals for their daily practice. There’s a study that shows that goal-setting can help combat depression because as you accomplish goal after goal, your confidence will grow and negative feelings can diminish.

As you improve as a musician, you naturally develop a sense of pride about what you’ve accomplished. Through successful performance experiences (I highly recommend seeking these out at retirement communities), you receive more positive feedback which in turn can improve your self-image.

How to Ease Depression by Playing Music

Sometimes factors outside of our control, such as life circumstances or chemicals in our brain, make it unlikely that something like playing music will fix the issue. However, if it can make such times even slightly more bearable, it might just be worth it.

Similar again to the relaxing music, your best bet is to play something you already know and like. Often when we’re depressed we are easily discouraged, so make sure it’s something you can play easily.

You may want it to be something somewhat light and upbeat, perhaps even playful. If you’re too far down in the dumps, however, this may have the opposite of the intended effect.

It may be a good idea to have something somewhat sad to start with that matches your mental state. This allows you to wallow a bit in this low mood, which is sometimes just what is needed. When you’ve had enough of that, try playing something more neutral, followed by something happier. Sometimes our spirits lift right up with the music!

If you’re improvising, do the same thing. Perhaps start in a minor key or one of the minor modes. As you play, gradually progress the music into a more and more positive mood. This can be a fun exercise even when you’re not depressed!

Make Practice Time Easier By Planning Ahead!

Hands playing piano keys with a metronome and pencil nearby

Learn how to plan exactly what you need to do each day to accomplish your goals. Then all you have to do at practice time is sit down and play!

The Piecewise Practice Planner will help you make meaningful progress every time you practice, even with as little as 5 minutes per practice session.

Best of all, it’s completely FREE–to opt in, click the button below!

3. Increase Focus

Any kind of sustained concentration (like meditation) is training for your brain, increasing its ability to focus. Unlike meditation, playing music gives you more to focus on, thus making your mind less likely to wander. Here’s an article on how music therapy helps people with ADHD.

In the above article they list several ways that music helps with focus. For one thing, it “provides a structure . . . with a clear beginning, middle, and end.” The mind knows exactly where it is and where it should be focusing.

Then of course there are those neurotransmitters again. Not only does music release endorphins, but if it’s pleasurable it also releases dopamine. Dopamine has many effects on our behavior, including learning, motivation, and attention.

Therefore the more pleasurable music you play, the more you can increase these aspects of your brain!

How to Increase Focus by Playing Music

If you’re having trouble focusing, you may want to first start by playing a piece that’s relaxing for you, as described above. This is because the relaxation response naturally slows you down, both mentally and physically, which allows space for focus.

If you’re too wound up, however, playing something relaxing will only frustrate you. In this case you should have something upbeat, fast, perhaps a bit challenging, but most importantly fun to play.

A piece with fast, repetitive figures or loud chords could be just what you need to channel all that excess energy.

4. Improve Memory

There is a lot of science behind the fact that listening to music can improve your memory, but what about playing music? Playing music can have the same affect, and perhaps even more so.

This is because playing music has all the same effects as listening, such as reducing stress and releasing brain-enhancing neurotransmitters, plus it uses your brain in a more intense way than just listening.

This article from Harvard Health says that “living a mentally active life” is important and that “activities that strain the brain” are the best. Playing music is perfect for this since you can always find something that will challenge you.

How to Improve Memory by Playing Music

Assuming you’re sufficiently relaxed and focused, the best way to improve your memory with music is by challenging yourself. Obviously depending on your level, you’ll be challenged by different things.

One way to get a great brain workout is to sight-read. Here’s an article I wrote all about how to find music to sight-read.

Another way that perhaps seems obvious is to work on memorizing a piece. This comes with a specific caveat though: You have to memorize it mentally as well as physically.

What I mean by this is it’s one thing to play something over and over until your hands know how to do it without any effort on your brain’s part. It’s quite another to know the piece so well that you can tell your fingers each note that must be played, or even write out the notation yourself from memory!

You may have noticed that all of these things are, in one way or another, connected to each other, and the key connecting factor is stress. Stress is so often the underlying cause of our problems, which is why doing something that relieves stress, such as playing music, can have so many positive results.

Have you been able to change a mental state for the better through playing music? Tell me about it in the comments!

Heidi has been involved in music in one way or another for most of her life. She studied music composition in college, has taught piano, voice, composition, ear training, and guitar, and has worked as a piano tuner and technician. Before the pandemic she loved playing concerts at retirement communities, bringing the joy of music to those populations. She is currently working on learning more about the connection between music and healing.

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