Start Small, Dream Big: The Role of the Arts in Improving Health and Well Being
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What is the point of the arts?
Does a pretty picture or a lovely harmony have any purpose beyond the simple pleasure it brings to the eye or ear?
Anyone who has ever lost themselves in the depths of a timeless work of art or cried at the simple beauty of a song can tell you that it does.
However, for the cynics out there, we’d like to talk about all the ways that the arts — music, in particular — can benefit us throughout the course of our lives. From helping children learn to speak better and communicate more effectively to lowering the risk of premature death, there is a lot that the arts can do for us.
Intrigued? Let’s dive in!
The WHO Review
What is the point of the arts? There is plenty of anecdotal evidence promoting the benefits of the arts, but what does the actual science say? This article draws information from a review the WHO carried out on global academic literature in both English and Russian over the period from January 2000 to May 2019.
Hundreds (over 900) of publications covering the reviews, analyses and meta-analyses of over 3,000 studies were included. More than 700 individual studies were also included.
They certainly did their homework, to say the least. Here’s what they found.
Childhood Development/Early Learning
Let’s start at the beginning. At only 19 weeks, babies begin to respond to sounds. Thus, before they are even born, children can begin reaping the benefits of listening to music. The WHO’s review found multiple studies highlighting the following benefits once a child is born.
There is something in a mother’s soul that gives her the desire to sing to their children. There is even some evidence to suggest that singing itself developed out of the sing-song speak and other sounds that mothers naturally use with their babies to help them learn to talk.
Aside from that, singing brings the mother closer to her child. The act enhances their maternal nurturing behaviours, decreases stress hormones in both the mother and her child, and increases the perception of emotional closeness between the two.
Melodic arches are easier for a baby to cognitively process than words, hence why nature encourages mothers to do that sing-song speak with their babies. It helps the child to develop auditory discrimination and attention — skills that are extremely important for learning to speak.
Later on, singing can help children who stutter learn to speak clearly. Even those affected by Rett syndrome (a genetic disorder that causes language and coordination problems) benefit from music. Through regular music therapy, they can learn to more fully communicate.
The impact of music is so profound that there are marked structural differences in the grey matter and white matter in the brains of kids exposed to music as opposed to those who aren’t. How these differences may affect intelligence is still debated.
Regardless, listening to music and especially learning to play an instrument has a profound impact on a child’s educational experience. Intellectually, they tend to learn and retain new information more readily. Socially, they develop more prosocial behaviours and are less likely to display severe behaviour problems.
Social Aspects of the Arts
The arts and music can literally bring us together. On a basic level, singing in groups has been found to affect the oxytocin level in the body (the hormone associated with feeling close to someone). In this way, it can promote social behaviours and facilitate social bonding.
Dancing, the theatre, and other art forms are also fun activities that can bring communities together. There are numerous examples of people who would never normally cross paths coming together around some form of the arts.
Among indigenous people, the arts can be a way for them to preserve their history and traditions. Elaborate costumes, dances, and tribal rhythms are passed down from generation to generation. Film and theatre can also help explain their culture to those outside of it, promoting societal bonding among different people groups.
Additionally, it’s an unfortunate truth of life that there is social inequality. However, music can help build bridges and offer opportunities to children in disadvantaged situations. How? All at once, music eases:
- Anxiety and depression
- Truancy and aggression
- Loneliness and emotional alienation
- Confidence and self-esteem
- School attendance
- Cultural empathy
- Personal empowerment
Community music programmes have even been found to help children that have been exposed to violence. They learn better self-control and exhibit fewer behavioural problems.
Surprisingly, music and the arts can have a profound impact on other areas of healthy living. Regardless of their socioeconomic status, people who engage in the arts are more likely to be healthier. They make better nutrition choices and stay more active.
Community activities tend to positively impact one’s self-perception and mental health, including one’s desire to eat healthily and exercise.
When it comes to exercise, music is an all-star. Not only is dancing an extremely enjoyable (and effective) way to exercise but also music has a number of psychological and psychophysiological benefits when played during high-intensity exercise. These include:
- Synchronising brain waves
- Inhibiting fatigue and exertion
- Activating regions of the brain that trigger muscle movement
- Stimulating steroid hormone responses
- Stimulating arousal
- Enhance happiness and optimism
For those who love dancing, listen up. Regular dance activities have been found to:
- Improve body composition (burn fat)
- Improve blood biomarkers such as cholesterol and markers of oxidative stress
- Improve musculoskeletal function (balance, strength etc.)
It should be noted that these benefits of dance are found to be greater than exercise alone.
The Literature of Music
Beyond the physical effects of music, the way music is used can help promote healthier behaviours through education. For example, songs about communicable diseases are an excellent vehicle for widespread education. They have effectively been used to distribute transmission information about malaria, cholera, and even the symptoms of Ebola. Artists have also used their music to teach people about the risks of HIV and how to protect themselves through healthy sexual habits.
What else has been communicated through song?
- Kids learning the alphabet
- Moms learning to breastfeed
- The basics of family planning and how to parent responsibly
- Proper childhood development
- Raising awareness about domestic violence
A shorter list might be what hasn’t been taught through song. When society wants to promote change, musicians and other artists are a wonderful vehicle for doing it.
While the physical health benefits of listening to music and participating in other arts might be surprising, the mental health benefits should be less so. After all, using the brain is what keeps it strong and being creative certainly flexes the mental muscles in a big way.
So what does it do?
On a general level, making music can help direct people’s perceptions of themselves. Recitals and learning an instrument in general can help build self-esteem, self-confidence, self-acceptance, and self-worth — all important qualities for maintaining positive mental health.
Let’s look at things on a more individual level.
These days, folks are far too stressed out. Listening to and making music, as well as participating in other art forms have been found to reduce stress levels. Not only does music lower the body’s stress hormone response, but also it helps regulate and express emotion, reducing stress.
The effect is so profound that playing calming music during a dental appointment has been shown to relax patients who suffer from dental anxiety and help them get through their visit.
Regularly listening to or making music helps people manage stress on a day-to-day basis. Since stress negatively impacts almost every other area of physical and mental health, reducing stress greatly improves a person’s quality of life.
It’s an unfortunate fact of life that most people experience cognitive decline as they age. However, extensive interaction with music and other cultural pursuits can help stave off that decline.
Those who have participated in musical training for 10 or more years have stronger visual-spatial abilities, memory, and executive function than others as they grow older. These same individuals tend to have lower risks of cognitive decline or dementia.
Learning to play a musical instrument as an older adult helps improve memory, processing time, and general cognition. Surprisingly, it can even help with age-related hearing loss (as it relates to cognition).
Even simply attending the theatre, a concert, or an opera every few months helps to slow cognitive decline and reduce the risk of dementia.
Regular participation in dance has a hugely positive impact physically on the body, reducing the risk of frailty in old age.
- Motor function
- Aerobic endurance
- Muscle mass and body composition
It is common for older folks to fall and hurt themselves. If the damage is severe enough, they may never fully recover. With all these benefits of dance, older folks are less likely to fall. Even if they do, the damage is typically much less and they can recover from it faster.
Cardiovascular disease is responsible for about 1 in 4 premature deaths in the UK. Dance has been identified as an independent factor reducing this risk in people over 40.
We’ve already discussed a bit about how music and dancing can support physical health through exercise and reducing stress. What about people who are already sick? Can music provide strong positive benefits as part of a treatment plan for a disease like cancer?
Once again, the answer is a resounding yes. Let’s look closer.
Being sick with cancer is never a walk in the park. However, music is another tool in a patient’s arsenal in the fight against the disease.
Listening to music can help reduce the side effects such as a lack of appetite or nausea, and shortness of breath or drowsiness. Anxiety and depression can also be a point of struggle for cancer patients, and we’ve already seen how music can help reduce these mental health symptoms.
The effect is so profound that it has been found that listening to music decreases a cancer patient’s hospital stay after surgery (or any type of surgery, not just caner patients).
For respiratory diseases, singing can actually be an excellent form of treatment. Regular singing improves physiological measures such as oxygen saturation and respiratory muscle strength. This, plus the positive effects on mental health that we’ve already outlined, helps to reduce measurable factors such as the number of doctor and hospital visits the patient must make.
Amazingly, singing has a greater impact on reducing breathlessness and anxiety than progressive muscle relaxation often used to treat patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Beyond the physical benefits, the solidarity found by participating in a singing group can also improve the patient’s quality of life. Additionally, they may find a greater sense of purpose and growth through learning a new skill.
When the end-of-life is near, music plays a final role in mental and physical well-being. It helps people express their emotions, and can reduce levels of sadness, depression, and anxiety. Patients (and their families and caregivers) can feel comfort and even spiritual satisfaction through music therapy.
On a physical level, listening to music helps to regulate the heart rate, promote relaxation, lower distress, and even alleviate pain and help with laboured breathing.
Death may never be easy, but it can be a bit more peaceful to the strains of a sweet melody.
Music and the Arts Are the Keys to Life
So, what is the point of the arts?
The next time someone tells you that it’s just a pretty picture or it’s just a silly song, have them read this article. What we’ve presented here from the WHO’s comprehensive review is that music and the arts are connected to every aspect of life itself.
Music and other art forms can be the key element of a long and happy life.
Ready to make music a fulfilling part of your life? Check out our musical instruments and classes today!