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Why Music Matters

By Janette Daher
Posted On Apr 02, 2018
Why Music Matters

Whether you prefer Beethoven or B.B. King, Beyoncé or Boston, chances are music will not only improve your mood, but improve your health as well. 

Ever since I can remember, music has been a huge driving force in my life. As a small child, my mother exposed us to every genre. I remember dancing to her turntable playlist while she cleaned the house to everything from the Beatles to the Jackson 5. I sang in a few bands and managed some others in my twenties, and have spent countless hours in and around the music business. You might say that I am a music fanatic. I’m certainly not alone: According to a Nielsen survey, 93 percent of the U.S. population listens to music at least 25 hours per week.

While I have always understood the emotional connection on a personal level, I often wondered: Does my love of music do more than just make me feel good? Can it, quite literally, make me—and you and everyone else—well?

So why does music seem to soothe so many beasts of burden? Brain imaging studies performed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) show that there are neuron pathways in the brain that react specifically and exclusively to music, regardless of the genre. These pathways are completely separate from the circuits that process sounds. Additionally, speech and music pathways are located in different parts of the brain, but they may overlap when responding to music with lyrics. This in part explains that unique connection we feel when listening to a melody.

Enjoying music has many other positive effects on the brain. Scientists at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed that listening to your favorite music for just 15 minutes a day causes your brain to release dopamine, the “feel-good” chemical in our brains. Additionally, according to the Journal of Psychology, listening to upbeat music improves mood, provided you desire to be happy.

Music Rx

According to Bonnie Berk, R.N., and a certified clinical musician, “Music greatly affects medical outcomes because of the way the brain processes sound, rhythm, and vibration.” In fact, a review of 400 research studies in Medical News Today showed that music increases the antibody immunoglobulin A and natural killer cells, which play an important role in attacking bacteria, infected cells, and cancerous cells. Music also assists in reducing the levels of the hormone cortisol, often called the stress hormone. Approximately 60 percent of all illness or disease is rooted in stress, so music may play a proactive role in prevention.

With all this good evidence, it’s no wonder that music therapy is being used more and more in traditional medical settings to improve patient outcomes in many medical conditions. Music therapy has been proven very effective in cancer patients, geriatric patients, and patients in intensive care in dealing with pain. Researchers at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, showed that music was more effective in reducing pain in cancer patients than standard treatments. Other studies tout the benefits of music therapy as a pain remedy as well; the common thread being the type of music: classical, meditation music, or personal favorites.

For patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, music therapy—and live music in particular—is very effective. “As a certified clinical musician, I often play [harp] for those suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. Playing songs that held meaning for them can stimulate brain pathways that may still be active but unreachable by other forms of communication,” Berk says. “Sometimes, I can help decrease a patient’s agitation level by playing a few chords that are pleasant sounding to the ear.” Music therapy has also proven effective in restoring cognitive function post-stroke.

Chronic Pulmonary Obstructive Disease (COPD) is a debilitating disease affecting lung function and is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. When used with standard medical treatment, weekly music therapy for a six-week time frame resulted in an improvement of symptoms, psychological well-being, and quality of life compared to medical treatment only counterparts in a study at the Louis Armstrong Center of Music and Medicine at Mount Sinai Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City.

Music can also play an important role in relaxing and de-stressing patients both before and after surgery. A German study found that relaxing music was more effective than sedatives in relaxing patients before undergoing surgery. Other research showed that listening to relaxing music following heart surgery left patients more relaxed and experiencing lower stress levels than those who went music-free.

If you’re having trouble catching those zzzs, there is evidence that shows listening to music may fight insomnia. A sleep study among college students showed that a dose of 45 minutes of classical or meditative music before bedtime improved sleep quality as well as improved symptoms of depression.

Want to drop a few pounds? According to a study from Cornell University, soothing music (and soft lighting) makes diners slow down at meals and actually eat less. Take it a step further and apply it to your workouts, too, if you aren’t already! Popping in those earbuds at the gym can greatly enhance your athletic performance. Ever notice how many professional athletes enter the arena with an iPod in tow? Turns out that listening to music before sports activity is not just a psychological strategy. A study of basketball players who failed at the free-throw line improved their shot percentage by listening to upbeat music and lyrics. Another study in the Journal of Strength Conditioning showed that long-distance runners who listened to motivational music ran faster, enhanced endurance, and improved workout motivation. It has also been shown that listening to music post-workout improves your physical recovery.

In fact, the right tune has been shown to aid in performance anxiety in high-pressure situations at work, too. Listening to music enabled subjects in an Oakland University study to successfully complete test questions in a timely fashion, and their test scores were better compared to their non-listening counterparts.

A Song in Your Healthy Heart

Music means many things to many people. It was religion for Jimi Hendrix, a force for Ray Charles, the mediator between a spiritual and sensual life for Beethoven, and the strongest form of magic according to Marilyn Manson. Whatever your musical taste, music is an intensely primal form of communication and will always be an integral part of our culture. So why not make a meaningful attempt at incorporating music into your health routine? Based on the evidence, it may prove as effective a treatment as some traditional therapies—and will feed your heart and soul in the process.