Music matters. That’s what musician Pete Seeger showed us. Seeger was a pioneer in the use of music to influence change. His combination of incredibly catchy melodies and thoughtful, socially conscious lyrics in songs such as “We Shall Overcome,” “This Land is Your Land,” “If I Had a Hammer,” and “Turn, Turn, Turn” were a powerful influence on national movements, including the fight for civil rights, world peace, and environmental protection.
While Seeger is best known for using music for social change, an important part of his legacy is the potential for music to affect change on a personal level. When Seeger said, “This machine surrounds hate and forces it to surrender,” he was throwing down the gauntlet. Music can heal.
Nowhere is this legacy more clear or important than in the movement to use music to treat mental illness. One in four adults in the U.S. suffers from a mental illness in a given year, yet only 40 percent receive treatment. The public health implications are considerable; mental health issues cost the world $2.5 trillion annually in health care costs, loss of functioning, and loss of life.
Alternative and complementary treatments such as creative art, meditation, and yoga have been proposed to bridge this gap. But music, because of its ubiquity in our society as well as its ease of transmission, has perhaps the greatest potential among alternative therapies to reach people who do not otherwise have access to care.
Does music heal emotional suffering? Research says yes.
We now know through controlled treatment outcome studies that listening to and playing music is a potent treatment for mental health issues. Research demonstrates that adding music therapy to treatment improves symptoms and social functioning among schizophrenics. Further, music therapy has demonstrated efficacy as an independent treatment for reducing depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
There are several mechanisms by which music can have this effect. First of all, music has positive physical effects. It can produce direct biological changes, such as reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels.
Also, studies suggest that exposure to prosocial lyrics increases positive thought, empathy, and helping behavior. The message in a lyric such as “We shall overcome” may be able to reach more people than all of the psychotherapists in the world combined.
Finally, music is a connecting experience. Seeger was well known for his use of the sing-along, and he made his goal of building communities explicit, saying, “The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.” Research clearly demonstrates that improved social connection and support can improve mental health outcomes. Thus, any music that helps connect people can have a profound impact on an individual’s mental health.
Countless other musicians with a message, such as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and Rage Against the Machine, have taken to heart Seeger’s statement, “Participation. That’s what's going to save the human race.” His influence can also be seen in organizations such as Musicorps, which heals disabled vets through teaching music, and Rock Against Dystrophy, which organizes concerts to raise money for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.
Pete Seeger is one of the spiritual godfathers of using music to improve mental health and well-being. Mental health professionals must capitalize on the path he blazed to continue the important work of improving public health and well-being.
Dr. Mike Friedman is a clinical psychologist in Manhattan and a member of EHE International’s Medical Advisory Board.