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.