People frequently have an intuitive belief that making music is beneficial to their mental health. A positive impact of music on mental health issues is a foundational component of music therapies.
On the other hand, musicians seem to experience depression and anxiety disorders more frequently than musically inactive individuals. How do you explain that?
A comprehensive study of the connection between making music and mental health, led by the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics (MPIEA) in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, revealed that musically active people have, on average, a marginally higher genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder.
Shared Genetic Factors
In 2019, scientists demonstrated a link between musical engagement and mental health issues for the first time in a large population study. Approximately 10,500 Swedish participants provided information regarding their musical participation and mental health.
Behaviour is influenced by many common genetic variants with successively minor effects, requiring extensive genome-wide association study samples to detect all variants.
In addition, the data were linked to the Swedish Patient Register to evaluate psychiatric diagnoses. It was discovered that musically active participants reported more frequently experiencing depressive, burnout, and psychotic symptoms than non-musical participants.
No Causal Link
Because the study subjects were identical twins, the research team was able to account for familial influences. These influences include both genetics and the childhood family environment.
Typically, twins grow up simultaneously in the same household. In addition, they share all or at least a portion of the same genes, depending on whether they are monozygotic (identical) or dizygotic (fraternal) twins.
The researchers discovered that musical engagement, such as playing an instrument or singing, and mental health issues are unlikely to be causally related.
“In other words, people do not make music in response to their mental health problems or vice versa. Rather, the link can be attributed to shared genetic factors and influences from the family environment,”
said first author Laura Wesseldijk.
Mental Health Issues and Musical Engagement
Using molecular genetics methods, the scientists continued investigating the relationship between musical engagement and mental health.
They confirmed that genetic variants influencing mental health problems and musical engagement overlap to some extent. This second study’s findings were recently published.
Using DNA from 5,648 people, the researchers investigated the genetic link between making music and mental health. In addition to genotype information, study participants provided information about their musical involvement, creative and athletic accomplishments, and mental health.
Polygenic scores – individual indicators – could be calculated based on the information available to determine each participant’s genetic risk for both mental illnesses and their genetic propensity for musicality.
According to an analysis of the data, people who are more likely to develop depression and bipolar disorder genetically are also more likely to be musically active, practice more, and perform at a higher calibre. It’s interesting to note that these relationships existed whether or not the subjects actually had mental health issues.
Regardless of whether they played an instrument, participants with a higher genetic propensity for musicality also had, on average, a slightly higher risk of developing depression. These results provide evidence that musical engagement and mental health are influenced by the same genes, at least partially.
“The overall relationship between making music and mental health is thus very complex: familial and genetic factors can influence both musicality and mental health. Furthermore, musicians appear to have a slightly higher genetic risk for certain mental illnesses,”
said senior author of both studies Miriam Mosing.
Naturally, these findings do not rule out the possibility of beneficial effects of music-making on mental health. Participating in music could have a beneficial or even therapeutic effect.
The team is already conducting additional research in this area while also considering flow experiences.
The term “Flow” describes the sensation of total immersion in an activity, which can occur, for instance, during cultural activities like playing an instrument. Initial findings indicate that flow experiences can improve mental health, even when familial and genetic factors are considered.
The study notes that music engagement may be especially beneficial for people with a high genetic risk for mental health problems and have less of an effect on people with a low genetic risk, or vice versa. This could obscure associations and explain previous contradictory findings.
“Future research is needed to further disentangle the music–mental health relationship, taking into account that musicians may have a higher genetic risk for depression and bipolar disorder in the first place and that underlying shared genetic factors may confound findings,”
the authors conclude.
- Wesseldijk, L.W., Ullén, F. & Mosing, M.A. The effects of playing music on mental health outcomes. Sci Rep 9, 12606 (2019).
- Wesseldijk, L.W., Lu, Y., Karlsson, R. et al. A comprehensive investigation into the genetic relationship between music engagement and mental health. Transl Psychiatry 13, 15 (2023).
- Jamison, Kay Redfield (1993), Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament, New York: The Free Press, ISBN 0-02-916030-8
- Kyaga, S. et al. Mental illness, suicide and creativity: 40-year prospective total population study. J Psychiatr Res 47, 83–90