Music Soothes the Soul…and More?
“I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music. . . . I get most joy in life out of music.”
You know how it is when you’re trapped in a traffic jam and there’s nowhere to go. There’s nothing you can do except wait for it to clear up. Getting upset and stressing out only makes things worse. Thank goodness for the radio, or your sleeve of CDs, or the hookup to play your phone’s music through the car stereo. All it takes is a couple minutes of listening to your favorite songs, and suddenly, you feel like you can handle the situation. Your heart rate slows back down to normal, your muscles are more relaxed, and you’re no longer gripping the steering wheel as if you’re choking the life out of it.
Either that traffic snarl isn’t as bad as you thought, or music has seemingly magical calming properties for both the mind and the body. If you’re a betting person, put your money on the latter. Listening to music impacts the reward and pleasure pathways in the brain. Specifically, it may trigger the release of dopamine, the neurotransmitter most closely associated with these feelings. This has profound implications for health and wellbeing, since listening to music is a non-toxic, non-invasive, and side-effect-free way to potentially boost mood, reduce anxiety, reduce subjective feelings of pain, and improve overall surgical outcomes.
The effects of music on your body are not all in your head. Or, depending on how you look at it, they are in your head—or, rather, your brain. But don’t underestimate the power of the central nervous system to influence the entire body. Studies have shown that listening to relaxing, pleasant music is effective for reducing pain and improving mobility among fibromyalgia patients—with fibromyalgia being a condition that is notoriously difficult to treat.
The beneficial influence of music in many aspects of healthcare are fairly well recognized. Patients who listened to music before, during and after eye surgery had lower rates of perceived stress and higher ratings of coping, and also had lower heart rates and blood pressure before, during and after the procedures, compared to patients who did not listen to music. So there were subjective benefits, as assessed by the patients, themselves, and these were backed up by measurable, objective parameters. Reviews and meta-analyses show that, overall, listening to music is beneficial for helping to reduce pre-operative anxiety, and also reduces post-operative pain and anxiety. Lower anxiety surrounding surgical procedures can aid wound healing, reduce risk of infection and aid recovery in general.
Emotions induced by enjoyable music have a cascade effect for physical wellbeing, and researchers have said that “strongly felt emotions could be rewarding in themselves in the absence of a physically tangible reward or a specific functional goal.” Imagine that: a rewarding experience with no adverse side-effects, no contraindications, and—best of all—no calories!
The enjoyment of music, however, is not a standard-issue trait coded in our DNA. While most of us enjoy music—in fact, some researchers believe our affinity for music has survival advantages so that we have been evolutionarily conditioned to enjoy music—we don’t all enjoy it in the same ways. Music stimulates people’s reward centers to different degrees, with some individuals experiencing no pleasure at all—a finding researchers call “music anhedonia.” Some people simply don’t find music as enjoyable as other people do.
Of course, the type of music people enjoy varies widely, and different kinds of music are appropriate for different situations. According to a study on the neurochemical effects of music, “Stimulating music produces increases in cardiovascular measures, whereas relaxing music produces decreases”—and these are patterns observed even in infants, among whom socialization has not yet conditioned them to associate different types of music with different activities. The cardiovascular effects of music are mediated predominantly by tempo (speed/pace), with slow music and musical pauses leading to decreases in heart rate, respiration and blood pressure, and faster music increasing these. There’s a reason they don’t play Bach during spin classes, and they don’t play heavy metal during yoga!
- Garza-Villarreal EA, Wilson AD, Vase L, et al. Music reduces pain and increases functional mobility in fibromyalgia. Frontiers in Psychology. 2014;5:90.
- Fernell J. Listening to music during ambulatory ophthalmic surgery reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and perceived stress. Evid Based Nurs 2002;5:1 16
- Salimpoor VN, Benovoy M, Longo G, Cooperstock JR, Zatorre RJ. The Rewarding Aspects of Music Listening Are Related to Degree of Emotional Arousal. Lauwereyns J, ed. PLoS ONE. 2009;4(10):e7487.
- Chanda ML, Levitin DJ. The neurochemistry of music. Trends Cogn Sci. 2013 Apr;17(4):179-93.
- Hole J, Hirsch M, Ball E, Meads C. Music as an aid for postoperative recovery in adults: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2015 Oct 24;386(10004):1659-71.
- David Brady