For thousands of years, humans have associated music with soothing, invigorating, and happiness. Everything from the drums of war to soothing instrumental string music to rock-and-roll love ballads can reach into our minds and change how we feel in a particular moment.
Medical research has found that music and other soothing sounds can change heart rate, breathing rate, cortisol (stress hormone) levels, and release neurotransmitters in the brain, all of which can regulate how stressed out, relaxed, and positive we feel about an experience or environment. Music can also be an important part of the overall healing process, so starting with the right tunes in the waiting room can help a patient move through their procedure or visit, and into the healing process at home, more smoothly.
The Stress Response and Music
Much medical research shows the benefits of music on moderating or alleviating stress. For example, a study of 60 female volunteers found that listening to music before a standardized stressor, like a stress test, was found to impact the autonomic nervous system, which indicates that soothing music before a stressful procedure or doctor’s visit could help to speed up recovery. Music before the stress test had some, but less, impact on the psychological stress response and the endocrine system’s stress management.
Music directly impacts the brain through the processing of stimuli. Sounds are vibrations of air particles, and people with average, healthy hearing can comprehend a certain range of these vibrations as the air particles hit their ear drums and then vibrate small bones in cochlea, or inner ear. These in turn vibrate very small hairs, which transmit the vibrations to the brain. The auditory nerve triggers electrical currents in the temporal lobe of the brain, where these electrical impulses are decoded and understood.
When the temporal lobe is triggered, however, memories and subconscious associations with the sound will be brought up. A specific song played in a specific instance in our lives will forever be associated with that experience, and the process of temporal lobe interpretation is why. New memories can be formed around the song, as neurotransmitters are stimulated by hearing the song or related songs again in different situations or specifically to commemorate the event like a wedding anniversary.
A large-scale research review of 400 papers examining the neurochemical effect of music found that listening to music reduced patient stress, but also – and potentially more important for the healing process – improved immune system function. It was also more effective at reducing anxiety before surgery than medication.
With such a great impact on patient stress, it makes sense that administrators of medical offices would want to provide the most relaxing possible playlist. But what makes for a great playlist? Not everyone agrees.
How Can the Science of Music Improve Medical Offices?
Since there are many areas of a medical office – from the waiting room and individual exam rooms to the back offices and even hallways or elevators – choosing music can impact each of these places differently. In some instances, it may be beneficial to allow a patient to choose their own music. In other situations, it could be better to give them a specific playlist to help them relax or pay attention.
A United Kingdom study reported that 88 percent of patients stated that music reduced their stress and improved their mood, and another study found that 83 percent reported that music was relaxing to them.
Over 60 percent of patients and more than half the staff in medical offices reported that they were in favor of music; however, for two-thirds of respondents, volume control was crucial. For passive listeners, this typically has less to do with high decibels that may damage hearing and more to do with whether music was in the background or foreground. Too often, foreground music is perceived as an additional stressor rather than a form of stress relief. Choosing background music carefully can improve both patient and employee stress levels.
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When a patient is not in the waiting room, however, they may benefit from having some agency over the music they listen to. Someone suffering from a medical condition that requires consistent doctors’ visits may not have many opportunities to control their environment or feel they have control at all. Offering headphones and a choice of playlists, or even the option to bring their own music, can increase their confidence in their treatment, their sense of agency in their environment, and their experience of personalized interactions with doctors and staff.
Using headphones also allows for one person to receive the full stress-relieving impact of their favorite songs without disturbing anyone else. Choosing music for larger environments where there will be more people can be trickier and requires more finesse.
Several studies indicate that classical music is a great, general option to soothe most people, especially when it is kept at a specific volume. But what if you need your employees to stay alert and energetic while your patients need to relax more? Selecting playlists for different areas of a medical office can address this, and understanding the psychology and personality of certain songs in a specific playlist can help.
Working with a commercial music streaming service will give you access to professionals who understand how music works in different environments. With this service, you can get help creating or finding a playlist that will suit everyone’s needs.
1. Classical Essentials: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/27RbRslhsC2DXpma7Rpk74?si=OUXvB-9TTN6wxi9FDDFomw
Song: Karelia Suite, Op.11 : 3. Alla marcia (Moderato)
Artist(s): Jean Sibelius, Sir Colin Davis, Boston Symphony Orchestra
Song: Concerto in A Major for Clarinet and Orchestra, K. 622: II. Adagio
Artist(s): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Antony Pay, Christopher Hogwood, Academy of Ancient Music
Song: Concerto for Violin and Strings in E Major, Op. 8, No. 1, RV 269 "La Primavera": 1. Allegro
Artist(s): Antonio Vivaldi, Simon Standage, The English Concert, Trevor Pinnock
Song: Nocturnes, Op. 9: No. 2, Andante in E-Flat Major
Artist(s): Frédéric Chopin, Axel Gillison
Song: Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major, K. 467 "Elvira Madigan": II. Andante
Artist(s): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Murray Perahia, English Chamber Orchestra
Song: Tchaikovsky: Serenade for String Orchestra in C Major, Op. 48, TH 48: II. Waltz. Moderato
Artist(s): Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Richard Hickox, City of London Sinfonia
Song: Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22, B. 52: I. Moderato
Artist(s): Antonín Dvořák, Prague Chamber Orchestra, Petr Skvor
Song: Serenade No. 13 in G major K.525 "Eine kleine Nachtmusik": I. Allegro
Artist(s): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Moscow Soloists
Song: Sicilienne, Op. 78
Artist(s): Gabriel Fauré, Marielle Nordmann, Jean-Pierre Rampal
Song: String Quartet No. 2 in D Major: III. Notturno: Andante
Artist(s): Alexander Borodin, Budapest Haydn Quartet
Song: Good Foot
Artist(s): Dave Koz, Jeff Lorber
Song: Biggest Part Of Me
Artist(s): David Pack
Song: Bona Fide
Artist(s): Julian Vaughn
Song: Ain't No Woman Like The One I Got
Artist(s): Jeff Golub, Richard Elliot
Artist(s): George Benson
Song: Dreaming Of You
Artist(s): Brian Culbertson
Song: Feels So Good
Artist(s): Chuck Mangione
Song: Freedom At Midnight
Artist(s): David Benoit
Song: Keepin' It Cool
Artist(s): Nick Colionne
Song: Let's Face The Music And Dance
Artist(s): Diana Krall
3. Classical Mornings: https://open.spotify.com/playlist/4SVvKy319UMLKEfDTvKA43?si=gncCf8CHSoWOk3CUN4DHOg
Song: Cantata, BWV 147: Jesus bleibet meine Freude
Artist(s): Johann Sebastian Bach, Yo-Yo Ma, Ton Koopman, Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra
Song: Carmen Suite No.1: Intermezzo
Artist(s): Georges Bizet, Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, Charles Dutoit
Song: Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra in A Major: II. Adagio
Artist(s): Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Oskar Michallik, Staatskapelle Dresden
Song: Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in C Major, Op. 15: II. Largo
Artist(s): RSO Ljubljana, Dubravka Tomšič
Song: Cello Concerto No. 2 in D Major, Hob. VIIb:2: II. Adagio
Artist(s): Franz Joseph Haydn, Yo-Yo Ma, José-Luis Garcia, English Chamber Orchestra
Song: Études, Op. 10: No. 3, Étude in E Major "Tristesse"
Artist(s): Frédéric Chopin, Henrik Måwe
Song: Peer Gynt Suite No. 1, Op. 46: I. Morgenstemning (Morning Mood)
Artist(s): Edvard Grieg, San Francisco Symphony, Herbert Blomstedt
Song: String Quartet No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11, TH 111: II. Andante cantabile
Artist(s): Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Prague String Quartet
Song: Images pour piano - Livre I: Images pour piano, Livre I, L. 110: No. 1: Reflets dans l'eau
Artist(s): Claude Debussy, Kathryn Stott
Song: Arioso (Adagio in G) from Cantata BWV 156 (Arr. by Lloyd Webber)
Artist(s): Johann Sebastian Bach, Julian Lloyd Webber, John Lenehan
- The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response. (August 5, 2013). PLoS One.
- Music and Health. (July 2011). Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.
- 4 Scientific Studies That Show Music Decreasing Stress and Promoting Health. (April 2014). Psych Central.
- Music in the Waiting Room. (August 1, 2009). British Journal of General Practice.
- The Healing Power of Music for Hospital Patients. (June 20, 2017). Spectrio Blog.