“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.
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.
“We have a such a deep connection to music because it is ‘hardwired’ in our brains and bodies,” Barbara Else, senior advisor of policy and research at the American Music Therapy Association told Medical News Today. “The elements of music – rhythm, melody, etc. – are echoed in our physiology, functioning and being.”
Given the deep connection we have with music, it is perhaps unsurprising that numerous studies have shown it can benefit our mental health. A 2011 study by researchers from McGill University in Canada found that listening to music increases the amount of dopamine produced in the brain – a mood-enhancing chemical, making it a feasible treatment for depression.
And earlier this year, MNT reported on a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry that suggested listening to hip-hop music – particularly that from Kendrick Lamar – may help individuals to understand mental health disorders.
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.
Reducing pain and anxiety
Bob Marley once sang: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” According to some studies, this statement may ring true.
Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study led by Brunel University in the UK that suggested music may reduce pain and anxiety for patients who have undergone surgery.
By analyzing 72 randomized controlled trials involving more than 7,000 patients who received surgery, researchers found those who were played music after their procedure reported feeling less pain and anxiety than those who did not listen to music, and they were also less likely to need pain medication.
This effect was even stronger for patients who got to choose the music they listened to. Talking to MNT, study leader Dr. Catharine Meads said:
“If music was a drug, it would be marketable. […] Music is a noninvasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery.”
This study is just one of many hailing music for its effects against pain. In March 2014, researchers from Denmark found music may be beneficial for patients with fibromyalgia – a disorder that causes muscle and joint pain and fatigue.
Listening to calm, relaxing, self-chosen music “reduced pain and increased functional mobility significantly” among 22 patients with fibromyalgia, according to the investigators.
But why does music appear to ease pain? While the exact mechanisms remain unclear, many researchers believe one reason is because listening to music triggers the release of opioids in the brain, the body’s natural pain relievers.
Dr. Daniel Levitin, of McGill University in Canada, and colleagues talk about this theory in a 2013 review, citing research that found people experienced less pleasure from listening to their favorite song when given Naltrexone – a drug that blocks opioid signals – suggesting music induces the release of opioids to ease pain.
An effective stress reliever
When feeling stressed, you may find listening to your favorite music makes you feel better – and there are numerous studies that support this effect.
A study reported by MNT last month, for example, found that infants remained calmer for longer when they were played music rather than spoken to – even when speech involved baby talk.
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.
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.
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.
When asked to recall the phrases, the researchers found participants who sang the phrases had much higher recall accuracy than the other two groups. “These results suggest that a ‘listen-and-sing’ learning method can facilitate verbatim memory for spoken foreign language phrases,” say the authors.
Evidence from such studies has led researchers to suggest music may help memory recall for people with cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease.
A study published in the journal Gerontologist last year assessed the effect of music on memory recall in individuals with early-stage dementia.
For the research, 89 people with dementia and their caregivers were randomly assigned to either a 10-week singing coaching group, a 10-week music listening coaching group or usual care.
The results revealed that both the singing and music listening groups not only had better mood and overall well-being that the usual care group, but they demonstrated better episodic memory on cognitive assessments. The singing group also showed better working memory than the usual care group.
“Regular musical leisure activities can have long-term cognitive, emotional, and social benefits in mild/moderate dementia and could therefore be utilized in dementia care and rehabilitation,” the authors concluded.
Helping recover brain injury, treat seizures
Increasingly, research is indicating that music can help aid recovery from brain injury – such as that from stroke.
A 2008 study conducted by researchers from the University of Helsinki in Finland found that stroke patients who listened to music for around 2 hours daily had better verbal memory and attention and a more positive mood than those who listened to an audio book or nothing at all.
What is more, studies have shown that music may aid speech recovery following stroke. One study conducted in 2013 by researchers from Korea, for example, found that stroke patients who developed communication problems after stroke demonstrated improved language ability following 1 month of neurologic music therapy.
Commenting on the possible benefits of music therapy for stroke patients, Barbara Else told MNT:
“While the neuroscience and research findings around the various music therapy interventions employed to support speech, language, and communication are rapidly growing and evolving, this is an exciting area.
When combined with our colleagues’ working with these patients in related disciplines, we often see good results. Many open questions remain but the work is very encouraging.”
It has also been suggested that music may help treat epilepsy – a brain disorder characterized by the occurrence of seizures. Reported by MNT in August, a study found the brains of patients with epilepsy show different responses to music than the brains of those without the condition.
Conducted by Christine Charyton, of The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and colleagues, the study found the brains of people with epilepsy showed greater synchronization in response to music – a “surprising” finding.
“Persons with epilepsy synchronize before a seizure. However, in our study, patients with epilepsy synchronized to the music without having a seizure,” Charyton told us.
These results, Charyton said, could lead to a novel treatment strategy for epilepsy. “Persons with epilepsy may use the music to relax; stress causes seizures to occur,” she explained. “By listening to the music, many patients reported that they felt relaxed.”
Music therapy should be utilized more in health care settings
Based on the substantial evidence that music offers numerous health benefits, many experts are calling for greater utilization of music therapy within health care settings.
“Music therapists are poised and ready to assess, deliver and document music therapy treatment but also to consult with our colleagues (physicians, nurses, physiotherapists physical, occupational therapists, speech-language pathologists, etc.) to support the patient as part of the interdisciplinary team and care of the patient,” Else told MNT.
In addition, Else believes that music therapy could offer an alternative treatment option for some conditions – such as tension headaches.
“A more complicated case example I can think of, although more rare, is for certain persons who experience seizure activity associated with music and auditory exposures – often high-frequency sounds and rhythmic intensity,” she said.
“Customized music therapy interventions to cope with the offending acoustic exposures can support stabilization of the patient’s symptoms and may, in turn, result in a medication reduction or taper,” she continued.
Based on the research to date, there is certainly evidence that we have much more than just an emotional connection with music. So the next time you put on your favorite track, have a little dance around safe in the knowledge that you are likely to be reaping some health benefits.