June 2, 2022

In Tune With Music

Does music affect health?

Peter N. Landless & Zeno L. Charles-Marcel

Q: Can music improve my health? 

A: Without a doubt, some music helps people feel happy. Population surveys show that music is used primarily for entertainment, personal enjoyment, background “space” filler, and religious purposes. So “health,” in the commonly used sense, is not what people generally give as their motivation for listening to or playing music, even though both these activities can have amazingly profound effects on our well-being, whether we are ill or otherwise healthy. In the Bible, David used music to calm Saul; Hippocrates played music to treat patients with mental illnesses way back in 400 B.C.; and Pythagoras, the Greek philosopher, prescribed it to treat bodily and mental ailments. Modern science now finds the same benefits and even more.

Music is a special gift to humankind. It affects not only our mood but also our learning and thinking functions. Neuroscientists believe that music activates many of the brain regions and brain chemicals and can produce physical rewiring in brain structures known to modulate heart function. It affects the beat-to-beat variations in heartbeats (HRV), which has been shown to be a powerful predictor of heart-related illness and death. It can help ease pain and relieve stress by reducing the level of stress-related hormones in the body. Research shows that people with chronic bronchitis and emphysema breathe easier while listening to music and have a modest but noticeably increased endurance and tolerance of high-intensity exercise. But all music and all people are not the same. 

Some kinds of music can be stress-producing. Heart and respiratory rates are higher in response to exciting music than in the case of tranquilizing music. In 2015 Finnish researchers found that music can bolster both positive and negative emotions. Some types of music produce sadness or support anger and aggression. The rhythm and other characteristics of the music—along with the culture, age, gender, musical taste, and emotional state—can all influence how we may respond to music. In one study, music perceived as arousing, aggressive, and unpleasant disrupted performance on a memory task and led to a lower level of reported altruistic behavior in 10- to 12-year-old children. In another study, groups of people were subjected to various compositions by Mozart, Strauss, or the pop group ABBA for 25 minutes each per day for three days. Music by Mozart and Strauss lowered blood pressure and heart rate, while music by ABBA did not. The slower tempos, tranquil melodies, gradual chord progressions, and soothing rhythms of classical music reduce mild to moderate insomnia. There’s even evidence that people who listen to calming classical music for 20 minutes per day may increase the activity of genes associated with memory, along with an increase in dopamine secretion and nerve interconnections. 

During the COVID pandemic, single music sessions were shown to improve blood oxygen levels and reduce anxiety—imagine that! 

Music is an amazing contributor to total health and well-being. A happy brain is a healthy brain. Thank God for this gift! 

Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.

Zeno L. Charles-Marcel, a board-certified internist, is an associate director of Adventist Health Ministries at the General Conference.