Psychological studies have shown that music can subtly influence mood and behavior in several groups, from shoppers to people in waiting rooms.
Music is closely associated with emotional regulation, so the right musical choices can greatly improve mood, reduce stress, and increase one’s sense of physical energy.
This can be a huge benefit to medical practitioners who need to soothe nervous patients in all kinds of settings, from patients at a general doctor’s visit to those in the emergency room. Music has also been closely associated with changes in healing, as evidenced by several scientific studies.
How Music Impacts the Brain and Body
Music interacts with the brain in ways that other stimuli do not, and that, in turn, can manage the body’s stress response in a unique way. First, sound waves travel through the air, into the ears, where they vibrate the eardrums, which then vibrates a series of small bones and muscles in the middle ear. Once those vibrations have occurred, the brain takes that motion and interprets the signal into the cerebral cortex, which is a part of the brain also tied to memory, thinking, and perceiving other stimuli. The cerebral cortex interprets the signal, which then causes a ripple effect across other areas of the brain, leading to stimulation of pleasure centers, emotional centers, and creative centers. Releasing different neurotransmitters and hormones to adjust stress and arousal eventually triggers the hypothalamus, which is involved in heart rate, respiration, stomach, and skin nerves.
For some people, certain songs can trigger the sensation of butterflies in their stomach, very high physical energy, and goosebumps or shivers because of this interaction between the cerebral cortex and the hypothalamus.
The transmission of all this brain activity occurs in less than a second, starting with the first impact of sound vibrations on your eardrum. Changes to brain chemistry and body rhythm will, of course, impact how you feel, perceive the world, understand yourself, and how your body responds to additional stimuli.
Music has long been understood to help manage stress. For example, music is used during magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to ease tension and take the person’s mind off the tight space. Now, medical research is beginning to understand the impact of music on specific body processes and how these changes can impact the healing process.
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Conditions Influenced by Music and Sound
Music can promote healing through several pathways, and it has a great influence on healing for specific conditions like cancer or strokes.
- Hormones: Music is known to manage stress hormones, changing blood pressure and heart rhythm. Fewer sedative drugs need to be used during treatment for all kinds of conditions when soothing music is played. A University of Munich survey found that some music can also stimulate the pituitary gland, releasing growth hormones that are associated with improved healing rates. The vibration of string instruments in classical and instrumental music has also been associated with heart rate, small intestine regulation, thyroid regulation, adrenaline release, and adrenal gland regulation. Joyful or upbeat music is closely associated with happier moods because the beat and tone stimulate the release of dopamine and endorphins.
- Immune function: A meta-analysis of 400 cases found that music lowers stress and boosts the immune response. This can reduce the risk of infection in a hospital setting, improve outcomes for immune-compromised patients, and ease stress regarding specific infections.
- Pain management: A survey of children waiting in a pediatric emergency room found that music reduced stress that eased pain. For example, when an IV was inserted, patients listening to music reported less pain and displayed less distress. Two-thirds of providers in the study reported that IVs were easier to insert. In another study of patients undergoing palliative care, those who took part in live music therapy sessions reported lower levels of persistent pain.
- Cancer: Soothing music has also been found to relieve stress, reduce pain, and lower fatigue in cancer patients. In a survey of 52 trials, with 3,731 participants undergoing cancer treatment, music or sound interventions were found to have a moderate-to-strong effect in reducing overall anxiety; a large benefit in reducing pain, which can lower the need for pain medications; and a small-to-moderate effect in reducing fatigue. Listening to music could also improve patients’ quality of life.
- Heart disease: Blood pressure and heart rate change to the beat of music. This is because the brain releases hormones to change or manage stress, depending on what kind of music is being played. For example, Mozart sonatas are often played for patients during medical treatment because the songs are closely associated with stress relief.An examination of 10 healthy, nonsmoking volunteers found that music they enjoyed led to a 26 percent jump in the diameter of upper arm vessels, which is associated with better circulation and lower blood pressure. Conversely, when the volunteers listened to music they disliked, their blood vessels narrowed by 6 percent. A study of 80 patients with myocardial infarction found that apical heart rate was lower and peripheral body temperature was higher in the group listening to music for relaxation and the group attending music therapy compared to a control group. A different survey of 45 patients being treated for myocardial infarction found that listening to relaxing music for 20 minutes led to reductions in heart oxygen demand, respiratory rate, heart rate, and overall anxiety for up to an hour.
- Brain injuries: Music therapy was found to improve return of speech in patients who suffered a stroke that damaged the left-brain region involved in language. Singing specifically helped retrain other areas of the brain to speak.
- Strokes: Rhythmic auditory stimulation (RAS) is a form of sound and music treatment often applied to people who have had strokes. A study of stroke patients with lesions in specific regions of their brains found that those with lesions in the cerebellum, thalamus, and pons and medulla regions received the most benefit with improved gait rhythm and pacing. These regions are associated with impairments in physical timing, so working with music or rhythm during rehabilitation can improve overall recovery outcomes.
- Parkinson’s disease: A 2009 study of vibroacoustic therapy – when a patient sits on a specialized chair that transmits low frequency vibrations through the body – found that Parkinson’s disease patients experienced less rigidity, better walking speed, bigger steps, and reduced tremors along with some other improvements in reported symptoms of the condition.
- Premature infants: A study of 272 premature babies of 32 weeks’ gestation or older, across 11 mid-Atlantic NICUs, used three types of musical noise to understand how this group could be impacted by music. A lullaby sung by the child’s parents, a gato box (a drum-like instrument simulating heart rhythm), and an ocean disc (a round drum-like instrument mimicking the sound of the womb) were all played live, near the infants, at different times by certified music therapists, who matched their playing to the heart rate and breathing rhythm of the infants. Both the rhythmic ocean disc and gato box slowed the babies’ heartbeats and breathing, indicating stress relief; however, singing was found to be the most effective method to relieve stress. Singing also improved the infants’ quiet alertness, enhanced their sleep, and improved sucking behavior for nursing.
Using Music to Heal
Adding relaxing music, stimulating music, and music therapy to a course of treatment can improve the overall healing process – not just by alleviating stress, but by impacting heart rate, blood pressure, the experience of pain, hormonal regulation, and other parts of the body. When a patient experiences faster healing, the financial impact for everyone is lower, and the person returns to their community in better psychological and physical condition.
- Music as Medicine: Docs Use Tunes as Treatment. (June 1, 2009). NBC News.
- How to Endure an MRI Scan. (April 2018). WikiHow.
- Music as Medicine. (November 2013). American Psychological Association (APA).
- Music Demonstrated to Alleviate Cancer Patients’ Symptoms. (August 17, 2016). ScienceDaily.
- Music and Medicine. (August 16, 2010). Journal of Multidisciplinary Healthcare.
- How Music Can Help You Heal. (February 2016). Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School.
- Immediate Effects of Rhythmic Auditory Stimulation on Gait in Stroke Patients in Relation to the Lesion Site. (September 29, 2016). Journal of Physical Therapy Science (PTS).