The power of music: how it can benefit health

“I think music in itself is healing,” American musician Billy Joel once said. “It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” Most of us would wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and it is this universal bond with music that has led researchers across the globe to investigate its therapeutic potential. ( ABHAY VERMA )

[A woman listening to music]

We can all think of at least one song that, when we hear it, triggers an emotional response. It might be a song that accompanied the first dance at your wedding, for example, or a song that reminds you of a difficult break-up or the loss of a loved one.

But increasingly, researchers are finding that the health benefits of music may go beyond mental health, and as a result, some health experts are calling for music therapy to be more widely incorporated into health care settings.

In this Spotlight, we take a closer look at some of the potential health benefits of music and look at whether, for some conditions, music could be used to improve – or even replace – current treatment strategies.

The study researchers, including Prof. Isabelle Peretz of the Center for Research on Brain, Music and Language at the University of Montreal in Canada, suggested the repetitive pattern of the music the infants listened to reduced distress, possibly by promoting “entrainment” – the ability of the body’s internal rhythms to synchronize with external rhythms, pulses or beats.

[A lady enjoying listening to music]
Research suggests music lowers levels of the “stress hormone” cortisol.

Another study conducted in 2013 found that not only did listening to music help reduce pain and anxiety for children at the UK’s Great Ormond Street Hospital, it helped reduce stress – independent of social factors.

According to some researchers, music may help alleviate stress by lowering the body’s cortisol levels – the hormone released in response to stress.

The review by Dr. Levitin and colleagues, however, suggests this stress-relieving effect is dependent on what type of music one listens to, with relaxing music found most likely to lower cortisol levels.

Another mechanism by which music may alleviate stress is the effect it has on brainstem-mediated measures, according to Dr. Levitin and colleagues, such as pulse, heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature; again, the effect is dependent on the type of music listened to.

“Stimulating music produces increases in cardiovascular measures, whereas relaxing music produces decreases,” they explain. “[…] These effects are largely mediated by tempo: slow music and musical pauses are associated with a decrease in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and faster music with increases in these parameters.”

Music’s effect on heart rate and its potential as a stress reliever has led a number of researchers to believe music may also be effective for treating heart conditions.

Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study presented at the British Cardiology Society Conference in Manchester, UK, in which researchers from the UK’s University of Oxford found repeated musical phrases may help control heart rate and reduce blood pressure – though they noted more research is required in this area.

Music and memory

Certain songs have the ability to remind us of certain periods or events in our lives – some that make us smile, and some we would rather forget.

With this in mind, researchers are increasingly investigating whether music may aid memory recall.

[An older lady listening to music]
Studies suggest music may aid memory recall for adults in the early stages of dementia.

In 2013, a study published in the journal Memory & Cognition enrolled 60 adults who were learning Hungarian. The adults were randomized to one of three learning tasks: speaking unfamiliar Hungarian phrases, speaking the same phrases in a rhythmic fashion or singing the phrases.


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