The Need for Healthful Music

Healthful music provides pleasure for our bodies and peacefulness and stimulation for our minds while promoting the finest qualities of our humanness. The more we avail ourselves of this class of music, the higher quality of life we may enjoy. This doesn’t mean we need to totally avoid all music that is not meaningful. It does indicate, however, that a more balanced choice of listening serves many purposes: comfort, inspiration, relaxation, and stimulation. Un-fortunately, much of music’s healing qualities have been neglected in favor of our popular culture’s emphasis on incessant activity, self-serving behavior, mindless entertainment, and manipulative marketing.  

While all forms of music may be personally meaningful to us individually, the concept of healthful music as described below has more to do with its effects on the well-being of humankind in general.  Briefly, the seven healthful effects of healthful music are:

  1. Harmonizes with our natural body rhythms
  2. Impacts our body without overwhelming our sensory systems
  3. Includes high frequency sounds for charging our nervous system
  4. Expresses respect for self and others
  5. Supports wholesome human relationships
  6. Prompts thoughtful introspection regarding our true motives
  7. Highlights issues that are important for our well-being

Too often, when referred to in the literature, music is discussed in general terms, rather than its specific qualities. For example, music is said to “soothe the savage beast.” Many musical selections are neither healthful for our bodies nor respectful of the human spirit. The generic use of the term ‘music’ groups together a wide variety of organized sound patterns covering a broad spectrum of effects on people. This is not useful because it assumes all music is equal in terms of its effect. While some listeners may perceive that all music doesn’t affect them in the same way, they get little help from much of the literature which fails to differentiate between qualities which benefit us and those that do not.

Although it isn’t the last word in thinking about the various effects of music on people in general, a clearly specified definition of ‘healthful music’ can aid in clarifying certain qualities of organized sound that have more beneficial qualities for the human condition than others.

Healthful music emphasizes the positive, inclusive aspects of our humanity and the issues that are most important to our personal and spiritual development. In respectful and soulful ways, healthful music supports our health and well-being. Poetic lyrics highlight life’s blessings and promote our ability to cope with the losses inherent in our earthly journeys.  Instrumental and orchestral selections which are in harmony with our bodily rhythms, without overwhelming our sensory systems, lend comfort to our daily lives.

Within the framework proposed here, the degree to which a musical piece is conducive to the average individual’s well-being is not determined by its genre. Instead, its value, in this regard, is determined by the extent it satisfies the seven characteristics of healthful music listed above despite its form or type.   

These qualities often occur in the vast often largely unexplored soundscapes of classical music, more accurately described as Western Art Music or Concert Music. Classical music actually refers to an historical period in the development of Western Art Music, generally between the mid-eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.  Instrumental and orchestral compositions of concert music are rich in dynamics covering the entire spectrum of sound to which the human ear is attuned. Vocal music of this genre is inspired by the writings of the world’s most profound poetic voices.  Generally speaking, meaningful themes are also present in most other genres of music: particularly in easy listening, stage and film scores, as well as, popular songs of the 30s and 40s. These characteristics are also present to some extent in country, jazz, folk, ethnic, blues, pop, and world music selections.  Ironically, due to the impact of popular culture, much of healthful music is among the least available and appreciated in the Western world. Consider the data regarding consumer listening preferences in the United States between 1999 and 2008:

Consumer Musical Genre Preferences in the U.S.

Genre 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008  
Rock 25.2 24.8 24.4 24.7 25.2 23.9 31.5 34.0 32.4 31.8 %
Rap/Hip-Hope 10.8 12.9 11.4 13.8 13.3 12.1 13.3 11.4 10.8 10.7 %
R&B/Urban 10.5 9.7 10.6 11.2 10.6 11.3 10.2 11.0 11.8 10.2 %
Country 10.8 10.7 10.5 10.7 10.4 13.0 12.5 13.0 11.5 11.9 %
Pop 10.3 11.0 12.1 9.0 8.9 10.0 8.1 7.1 10.7 9.1 %
Religious 5.1 4.8 6.7 6.7 5.8 6.0 5.3 5.5 3.9 6.5 %
Classical 3.5 2.7 3.2 3.1 3.0 2.0 2.4 1.9 2.3 1.9 %
Jazz 3.0 2.9 3.4 3.2 2.9 2.7 1.8 2.0 2.6 1.1 %
Soundtracks 0.8 0.7 1.4 1.1 1.4 1.1 0.9 0.8 0.8 0.8 %
Oldies 0.7 0.9 0.8 0.9 1.3 1.4 1.1 1.1 0.4 0.7 %
New Age 0.5 0.5 1.0 0.5 0.5 1.0 0.4 0.3 0.3 0.6 %
Children’s 0.4 0.6 0.5 0.4 0.6 2.8 2.3 2.9 2.9 3.0 %
Other 9.1 8.3 7.9 8.1 7.6 8.9 8.5 7.3 7.1 9.1 %

Referring to the chart above, from 1999 through 2008, preference for Rock music increased from 25% to 32% over this ten year span. In 2008, over 52% preferred Rock, Rap / Hip-Hop or R & B / Urban music. Country and Pop contributed an additional 16%. These four genres account for 80% of music consumption in America during this time span. Religious, Classical, Jazz, Soundtracks, Oldies, New Age, Children’s and other varieties made up the remaining 20%. Classical music dropped from 3.5% to 1.9% in consumer preference. Over the same period, jazz dropped in popularity from 3% to 1.1%.  A significant reason of this decline in preference is due to a lack of availability of this music in the public arena, particularly in recorded music and radio. Children growing up in this restricted aural environment have little opportunity to become acquainted with the genres within which most healthful music occurs.

Today, technology, rather than musicality, is driving much of popular music. On the contemporary music scene, high-tech methods and aggressive marketing supersede emotionally and spiritually nourishing sounds. Many contemporary composers and artists, despite their artistic talents, avoid emotionally rich and varied expression.

            “The woods are filled with virtuosi who will not become human until
           they venture into the open meadows of emotion. But they’re scared
           to do so, because their culture defines all emotion as ‘pop.’”  p. 339

          Martha Bayles
          Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty & Meaning in American Popular Music
          New York: The Free Press, 1994

During the late 1960s and 1970s, popular music and entertainment increasingly expressed, augmented, and pandered to the developmental issues of adolescents who were attempting to create their personal identities. Unfortunately, this music provides little or no altruistic framework within which young people may responsibly explore and develop their identities in concert with learning the skills needed for establishing and maintaining serious relationships. The 1980s and 1990s produced new technologies that improved sound recordings and portable listening devices which helped launch new genres of urban style music: techno, disco dancing, rap, and hip-hop. These genres aggressive, self-promoting themes, dominate much of the music favored by youth. Young people, in particular, roost in the genres which have the least possibility for prosperity as they navigate the complex, essential aspects of the human condition. This wouldn’t be such a problem if their habitual choices of music didn’t so encapsulate their lives.

          “… on average, American adolescents spend four to five hours a day
          listening to music and watching music videos. This involvement extends
          beyond sheer time spent: music alters and intensifies their moods, furnishes
          much of their slang, dominates their conversations, and provides the
          ambiance at their social gatherings. Music style defines the crowds and
          cliques they run in. Music personalities provide models for how they act
          and dress. The great majority of this music is popular music, with its range
          of genre styles. Only a minority of students identify classical music as one
          of their interests….” p. 198

          Roy Shuker
          Understanding Popular Music (Second Edition)
          New York: Routledge, 2001


Readily available access and exposure of many musical genres is lacking in the contemporary music scene, particularly among the young. In public venues, from the cradle on, children are bombarded almost exclusively with driving, rhythmic music that is often out of sync with bodily rhythms and lacking in altruistic themes. Much of this music is listened to at high volumes, which often lead to irreversible hearing damage for the listener.  In addition to the possibility of hearing damage, when our sensory systems are overly driven, the body shuts down diminishing our ability to experience emotions. Unless children are exposed to a much wider choice of musical choices, they will grow up listening exclusively to music that portrays self-serving, antagonistic, and non-caring notions toward others. This can impair their ability to meet their needs for human nurture: the giving and receiving of love. Some popular music also primes young people for participation in self-inflating cliques at school; not an appropriate laboratory for learning how to establish and maintain satisfying, respectful relationships with others in social settings beyond the school yard.       


Melissa Healy reports music-making endeavors like voice lessons or playing a musical instrument offer many benefits for general learning and academic performance. She refers to the work of Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist, who has studied differences between the brains of musicians and non-musicians. He found that music fosters coordination among many brain regions, “… including those that process sights, sounds, emotions, and memories.” In addition, Dr. Schlaug also discovered that musicians have larger and denser corpus callosums than do non-musicians. These are the nerve bundles that carry messages between the two brain hemispheres. Ms. Healy ends her article with a bow to the value of listening to music:
           “In the end, music listening might come in a distant second to learning
           in a brain-building contest. But one thing we know beyond a doubt is
           that it brings pleasure – and few psychologists scoff at the power of that.
           It promotes well-being. It enhances attention. It protects against the
           degradation of old age. It can even ease pain.”

           Melissa Healy (Los Angeles Times - March 7, 2010)

Music is used for merchandising, political, and propaganda purposes, sometimes with anti-social objectives. The lyrics of a great deal of popular music are self-promoting and harmful to substantial, long-term relationships. In general, much of the music that is most popular in America and the Western World does not reflect the best of our humanity.  More often than not, it corrupts our basic sensibilities. While music which is most popular with contemporary youth may not cause many of our social problems, it often reflects their harmful effects.

For our general well-being, we must become more discriminating in our choices of music by broadening the scope of our listening. It is essential that healthful music be introduced to children before their hearing becomes exclusively accustomed to our popular culture’s pervasive, largely intrusive musical styles. This would afford young people opportunities to acquaint themselves with an expanded range of music which celebrates the wonders of our shared humanity, rather than merely entertains.