International Socioeconomics Laboratory
International Socioeconomics Laboratory

Breaking Down the Relationship Between Music & the Teenage Human Psyche

By Stanley Huang & Sudiptha Paul

Music is the art of arranging sounds and crafting harmonious melodies. It has always bridged different cultures, a chiasm for shared experiences, and, for many, a haven away from hectic reality. This artistic endeavor has provided singers and musicians with broad opportunities to explore vibrant genres and create masterpieces. So much so that the music industry generated 21.5 billion in 2019. Not only has music supplied visionaries with a growing business, but it has also provided solace for students. Many students have utilized music as a coping strategy—to escape the quickened pace of life and perhaps, for a brief moment, indulge in harmonious delight. With the onset of the pandemic, students face long periods of isolation, increased stress levels, and various mental health issues. Families are burdened with economic distress, failing businesses, and the death of their loved ones. In such times of adversity, students—especially high school students—are turning to music. One study suggests that people turn to music as a social surrogate. Perhaps with no one to turn to, students seek emotional comfort in listening to songs that give form to their personal experiences and voice their distress.

We must prioritize the mental health of our students. With long periods without face-to-face socialization, students are prone to depression, decreased sense of reality and empathy, reduced ability to cope, and increased likelihood of dementia. In most cases, students averted to music which does a lot to alleviate these mental health issues. "Music has charms to soothe a savage breast. To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak," as described by English poet William Congreve.

Congreve’s words continue to echo across the world as nations continue to deal with the implications of COVID-19. There once used to be NYC subways crowded with musicians of all different backgrounds. There was once the local street cellist in Columbus circle or the Erhu player offering his calming and foreign music to everyday Americans. Instead, there is now a bleak feeling of emptiness across the streets of these once vibrant urban centers. Broadway and West End musicals are no longer showcasing every weekend, nor are students and teachers despising one another’s company in the final semester recital. The pandemic forced the complete shutdown of concerts, bars where artists once gathered and has structurally changed the dynamic of the music industry. The industry as a whole has lost upwards of $30 billion worth of revenue as a result of the pandemic, and that number is only growing. Although smaller concerts are now opening up, historically large concerts with sold-out stadiums are yet to be permitted in most parts of the country.

Music as we once knew it is different. It is harder to socialize and sing with your friends at karaoke bars or come home three hours late from a Travis Scott concert. Where high school students would often be seen walking around with their headphones, listening to and blasting Joji, we are stuck behind screens with music often being the only escape. So this begs the question, why are high school students or teenagers in general so intrinsically addicted to the immersion or idea of music? A TeenVogue article stated that neuroscientists discovered that there are dopamine spikes within our brain during climactic moments in songs. This is the same chemical that is released during “substance use, exercise, and sexual activities.” At the same time, the music that triggers the release of dopamine within our brains is different for each and every person. While one person would enjoy rock and punk music, someone else might find joy in listening to classical and pop music.

Music itself is able to shape neural pathways and influence the choices and preferences of adolescents later on in their lives. It is found to stimulate the prefrontal cortex of one’s brain and creates beneficial memories for others. Dr. Rogers, a director of Berklee Music Perception, says that “we know that humans tend to bond to music in our teens, this very same music can be our buddy.” In some sense, the lyrics we listen to can act as some sort of a trance in which we are stuck and work to tune out the world around us.

This begs the question: can music help the mental health of growing children and adolescents? Researchers found that children who listened to more music on average had increased self-esteem and displayed fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety. The same children within this study conducted by Northern Ireland Music Therapy were found to have increased communication skills and interactive skills compared to their peers. For children and teenagers suffering from autism or mental illness, studies have found that music therapy has larger effects compared to “placebo” therapy. Even more, there is significant evidence to prove and back up that music therapy is effective in memory recall, reducing stress and anxiety before major medical procedures, and decreasing hospital stays.

In truth, music may not always be the best way to help teenagers. However, its proven connection to development and healing is one of the many reasons why it has such a great connection to the psyche of teenagers. Considering that music therapy has still yet to be fully understood and researched, in the coming decades, we will be offered far more transparent information on just how effective it can be. Even still, music is something that everyone grows up around and in its rawest form as it truly does bring humanity together.

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