Drumming and mental health

Who doesn’t love some good music?

Well, actually there are people who legitimately dislike music. But for most of us, listening to music feels good and releases dopamine in our brains.

There’s also growing evidence that both playing and listening to music can improve our overall mental health. For this reason, many scientists over the last few years have started looking into music therapy as a way of helping people with a range of disorders, including anxiety, schizophrenia and ADHD.

The latest good news for music as mental health intervention comes from a team of researchers at Royal College of Music, Imperial College London and University College London.

In a study just published, they recruited thirty experimental subjects and fifteen control subjects for ten weeks of group drumming sessions. At weeks six and ten, they measured several aspects of the participants’ overall mental health.

Here’s what they found:

  • At week six, the participants scored lower on measures of depression and higher on measures of social resilience than when they’d started the study. By week ten, their scores had improved even more.
  • At week ten, the participants scored lower on anxiety and higher on general mental well-being than in the beginning.
  • These changes were still present three months after the drumming sessions ended.

In other words, the group drumming improved people’s social resilience, anxiety, depression and mental well-being. It took more time for the changes in anxiety and mental well-being to become apparent than the changes in social resilience and depression, but all changes tended to stick in the three months following the study.

So that’s cool. But the researchers didn’t stop there.

Since mental health has been linked to inflammation and immune functioning, the study also looked at how drumming affected people’s inflammatory responses. Specifically, the researchers measured participants’ levels of cytokines, small proteins involved in inflammation.

Sure enough, people in the drum circle showed lower levels of cytokines that promote inflammation and higher levels of cytokines that suppress inflammation. The mental health improvements coincided with underlying biological changes.

This could turn out to mean that music is good for your physical health, not just your mental health. Inflammation’s role in both mental and physical health problems is one reason some researchers have raised the possibilities of vicious cycles between mental and physical health – where, for example, depression can cause heart disease, which can make depression worse, etc.

Because everyone involved in the study was already active in other community group activities like book clubs, the researchers suspect the changes in immune response and mental health are at least partly a result of the drumming specifically, not just becoming more socially connected.

Of course, there are still a lot of questions to be answered. We don’t know exactly why music appears to be so good for mental health, and we don’t really know the cause-and-effect between mental health and inflammation.

But one thing we do know, thanks to this study: it’s never too early to join a drum circle!

Image: FreeImages.com/Dominic Morel