Everyone listens to and loves music, but few people know that it actually has health benefits. Listening to music increases dopamine, which helps reduce blood pressure. Music improves mental and athletic performance, helps with many aspects of mental health, and even reduces blood pressure. Read this post to learn more about the health benefits of music and the research behind them.
What is Music?
Music is an abstract stimulus. While it is not essential for survival, it has persisted through many cultures and generations. It has the ability to bring pleasure to many individuals and affect their emotions .
Although music’s value is not related to an association with any physical reward, its value is still high. Music is its own reward .
Music is also used as therapy, involving musical interaction. Patients listen to music, play instruments, sing and write songs, or even discuss themes related to music .
Music increases dopamine release, reduces blood pressure and pain, enhances exercise results, and may even treat mental disorders.
However, its benefits are mostly dependent on the individual’s perception. Additionally, since it is not possible to have double-blind studies of music’s effects, the results of various trials may be biased.
Health Effects of Music Depends on Genre
There are many different types of music. Each different genre causes a different effect.
For example, critical listening of techno music causes a significant increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones (like norepinephrine) .
In a study (RCT), 60 participants listening to classical music (Mozart and Strauss) had lower blood pressure and heart rate, while pop music (ABBA) showed no effect .
In another study of 144 participants, grunge rock increased hostility, sadness, tension, and fatigue, while reducing caring, relaxation, mental clarity, and vigor .
In contrast, designer music (music designed to have specific effects on the listener) was most effective in increasing positive and decreasing negative feelings .
Another study showed that mantra chanting positively influenced mental states in 60 healthy students and helped improve attention .
In particular, the OM mantra significantly influenced the human nervous system. The spectral analysis concluded that this sound attains steadiness of mind and minimizes stress .
Moreover, OM chanting showed limbic deactivation in 12 healthy volunteers. Brain imaging scans showed that the brain was in a resting state when the participants were chanting, which helps relaxation .
These differences in genres affect how music influences our emotional health. Researchers suggest that the music used for relaxing purposes should be instrumental, consist of low tones, and have a beat between 60 – 80 bpm for the maximum benefit .
How Music Derives Its Health Benefits
Listening To Music Increases Dopamine Release
Music affects the emotional and reward circuits of the brain. The reward circuit helps evaluate information and predicts likely outcomes from different choices. Music increases the activity of dopamine-releasing neurons [1, 11].
In one study, researchers analyzed PET scans, recordings, and fMRI scans from 10 individuals who responded positively to music .
Results showed dopamine release (by the dorsal and ventral striatum) during music exposure .
The amount of dopamine released is related to the amount of pleasure that the listener feels .
In a meta-analysis, scientists concluded that reward prediction plays an important part in dopamine release. The individual’s perception affects how much pleasure they feel from listening to music. Interestingly, when the piece of music fulfills the individual’s prediction, it leads to dopamine release in the brain [12, 1].
The mechanism by which music increases dopamine involves calcium. Music exposure increases blood calcium levels. After calcium is transported to the brain, it increases dopamine synthesis through a pathway involving a calcium-binding protein (calmodulin) .
Music reward value also depends on brain activity. The interactions between auditory, perceptual, and reward mechanisms are vital for the pleasure you feel from music. However, a lack of interaction between these mechanisms causes some people to hold no reward value for music .
Health Benefits of Music and Music Therapy
1) May Reduce Blood Pressure
Dopamine activity inhibits the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) nervous system, which raises blood pressure. Thus, dopamine lowers blood pressure by inhibiting the fight-or-flight system .
In a study (randomized controlled trial, RCT), scientists examined the effects of music on 30 elderly patients. The subjects had high blood pressure (hypertension). After four weeks, the music group had a significant decrease in blood pressure while the control group had no significant changes .
In another controlled clinical study, 23 elderly patients with hypertension who underwent music therapy had a decrease in average blood pressure after 12 weeks and improved their quality of life .
In a meta-analysis, researchers found that music therapy led to a significant reduction in both blood pressure and heart rate .
Rats’ blood pressure decreased significantly during and after exposure to music, and also increased calcium and dopamine levels. The increase in calcium levels activated the dopamine D2 receptor .
When the D2 receptor was activated, it suppressed fight-or-flight nerve activity. This resulted in a reduction in blood pressure .
In a later study, researchers found that the music’s frequency affects the blood pressure-reducing response. A higher frequency (4k – 16k Hz) decreased blood pressure, while low frequency (32 – 125 Hz) music did not significantly change blood pressure in the rats .
The frequency differences might not have the same effects on humans. There might be differences between human and animal perception of music. More studies on humans are required .
2) Reduces Stress-Induced Inflammation
Stress negatively influences the immune system and causes an imbalance in cytokine levels, which increases pro-inflammatory cytokines, like IL-6 and TNF-a .
A study (RCT) of 60 healthy female nurses showed that music could help relieve stress and improve the immune response by lowering pro-inflammatory cytokines (IL-6 and TNF-a) .
In a review, seven studies showed a decrease in IL-6 and 13 studies an increase in immunoglobulin A (an antibody) after music therapy sessions .
3) Reduces Anxiety and Stress
Listening to music also helps reduce anxiety levels .
In a study (RCT) of 200 cataract surgery patients, meditation music helped reduce stress. The group that listened to music before surgery reported pleasant feelings and relaxing experiences. The major limitation of this study was that there were no reliable indicators of stress measurement, like stress hormone levels .
Another meta-analysis of 42 trials (RCT) had similar results as the previously mentioned study. Music therapy was effective in reducing patient anxiety. Not only did music therapy lower blood pressure and heart rate, but it also lowered cortisol (stress hormone) levels .
Researchers suggest that music used for relaxing purposes should be instrumental, consist of low tones, and have a beat between 60-80 bpm for the maximum benefit .
However, the limitation of this meta-analysis is that it is based on patients with different characteristics hindering the interpretation of results .
4) Helps Treat PTSD
Another study (RCT) showed that group music therapy significantly improved PTSD symptoms and depression. Some participants reported that music was more enjoyable, less intrusive, and less threatening than individual talking therapy .
Patients that have PTSD may also poorly respond to drug treatments. Medications also have many side effects .
Music therapy is a safe alternative to medication, or it may be combined with, drug administration in PTSD patients. However, while it may lessen the severity of PTSD symptoms, its effects are less specific. Generally speaking, music therapy helps to relieve stress, treats anxiety and depression, and helps with sleep disorders .
In one study, when compared to muscle relaxation or no relaxation method at all, music relaxation improved sleep quality and depression symptoms in PTSD patients .
However, researchers could not use accurate predictors of treatment success in regards to the severity of PTSD symptoms. Additionally, the small sample size might affect the results .
While music may help patients deal with their trauma, this method may not help everyone, as the effects are individual .
5) Improves Depression Symptoms
Music therapy gives patients with depression a feeling of meaningfulness and pleasure. It also increases physical movement; physical activity helps alleviate depression .
Music therapy improved depression in a study (RCT) of 60 female patients with breast cancer. After music therapy, their depression scores were lower than those of the control group. Also, the music therapy group had a shorter stay in the hospital than the control group .
In a meta-analysis, researchers found that music therapy improved scores on depression rating scales. The scales included self-rated and clinician-rated scales, which measure depression symptoms. Music is a cost-effective treatment for depression, and it is also self-administered by the patients .
However, a lack of data in the reviewed studies prevents a proper interpretation of the results. Nonetheless, with more large-scale studies, the increase in evidence can support music’s effectiveness as a treatment for depression .
6) Improves Schizophrenia Symptoms
Music therapy helps improve mental health in schizophrenia patients. In a randomized controlled trial, music helped improve depressive mood and disturbances in depressive thoughts in 28 schizophrenia patients .
A meta-analysis of eight studies also found that music therapy had positive effects on schizophrenia symptoms. Music therapy improved the patients’ general mental state, depression, anxiety, and social interaction .
7) Improves Sleep Quality
Sleep disorders cause fatigue, depression, and anxiety. Since music reduces blood pressure, decreases anxiety, and lowers fight-or-flight (sympathetic) nervous system activity, it may have positive effects on sleep .
In a study (RCT), researchers tested the effects of music and audiobooks on sleep quality in 94 students. Participants that listened to classical music for 45 minutes had significantly improved sleep quality .
A meta-analysis of six trials concluded that music might be effective in improving sleep quality in adult insomnia patients. However, music did not increase total sleep time or improve sleep interruptions .
8) Improves Exercise Performance
Athletes use music to help increase motivation and performance. Music enhances the effects of exercise.
Although music cannot distract the exercisers from fatigue, it could still change their perception of it. Music has the ability to make the individual have a more positive outlook on high-intensity exercise .
The body’s response to musical rhythm also plays an important role. The brain detects the rhythm, which influences the body’s movements. This reduces the energy cost of exercise by promoting a pattern of movements for the body to follow .
In a meta-analysis, 24 out of 32 studies showed that music helped enhance physical performance and stamina during exercise .
In a study of 10 well-trained male athletes, listening to music led to better exercise conditions. The rate of perceived exhaustion while listening to music during exercise was lower compared to without music. They felt less tired during their workout when they listened to music .
Additionally, these athletes also had a lower heart rate, blood pressure, lactate, and norepinephrine levels while listening to music. Higher levels of lactate and norepinephrine are indicators of stress during exercise performance .
These results suggest that music allowed the participants to relax, which reduced muscle tension, increased blood flow, and decreased lactate production .
In another study, slow tempo music helped quicken recovery after exercise in 60 healthy subjects. It hasted the recovery of heart rate and blood pressure. The subjects also had a subjective feeling of a faster recovery in comparison to when they listened to fast music or no music .
These effects may be due to slow music reducing fight-or-flight stimulation. This leaves the subjects in a relaxed state and made them feel that they were recovering faster .
Because music helps reduce an individual’s perceived exhaustion, it may increase exercise enjoyment. Music could potentially increase one’s motivation to exercise and increase adherence to training .
However, the environment, type of exercise, and the exerciser’s perceptions can all influence how much music affects exercise performance .
9) Might Improve Learning
Music activates brain areas that control emotion and reward. It increases dopamine, which plays a role in reinforcement learning and task performance .
In a study, among 73 participants those with more musical experience performed better in a reinforcement learning task while listening to neutral music and tested better with pleasurable music. Hence, music was able to influence task performance positively .
However, in a different study of 75 healthy subjects, background music had no influence on verbal learning tasks. Different types of music with various tempos neither enhanced nor worsened verbal learning performance .
In another study, 41 musically trained children scored higher in the motor, verbal, and nonverbal reasoning skills than 18 children without training .
There are many possible explanations for these results. Learning how to play an instrument might improve the children’s motion control while reading music might improve the children’s reading skills .
However, since the socio-economic background of the children might influence the quality of education, it’s not certain if music has a big influence on cognitive ability .
10) Improves ADHD Symptoms
Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is a disorder that is characterized by inattentiveness and hyperactivity. Individuals with ADHD might also act impulsively and lack behavioral control. ADHD causes difficulties in learning, behavior, and socialization .
Music improves performance in children with ADHD. External stimulation by music during monotonous, routine tasks increases their arousal, which stops them from drifting off task and keeps them focused .
Researchers studied the effect of music on 20 children with ADHD. The children worked on math problems based on their ability level .
With music, the children scored, on average, 33% higher than when they worked in silence. They also scored 23% higher when there was background speech in comparison to silence. In contrast, children without ADHD performed similarly in all three conditions .
In a survey, music therapists indicated that music therapy was an effective treatment for children with ADHD. However, since it was used in conjunction with medication, it is difficult to isolate the effect of music on ADHD symptoms .
11) Alleviates Dementia Symptoms
The gradual death of brain cells causes dementia. Dementia causes a decline in thinking skills and memory. While there are treatments that can alleviate some symptoms, there is no cure for dementia .
Dementia patients still enjoy music, even in the advanced stages of the disease. Patients who take part in musical activities can improve their behavior, mood, and brain functions .
In one study, music helped improve recognition memory in 13 Alzheimer’s patients. They performed better on a memory task for verbal information when listening to music. However, these benefits were not seen in the 14 healthy older adults who also partook in this study .
In a meta-analysis of 19 studies, music therapy helped increase the quality of life in dementia patients, reducing agitation and other behavioral disturbances .
Even if music improves symptoms in some patients, it may not be effective in others. Current studies on music’s effects on dementia are also not well defined and lack rigorous guidelines .
The benefits of using music therapy seem to outweigh the cons. It is inexpensive and does not seem to have any serious side effects, besides causing agitation. Researchers think that music therapy is ideal for all stages of dementia .
12) Improves Parkinson’s Symptoms
Parkinson’s disease is a disorder that involves the degeneration of the dopamine system, which leads to movement-related dysfunctions, anxiety, and depression. Music can potentially help improve psychological and movement-related symptoms .
A meta-analysis of six studies revealed that music could benefit Parkinson’s patients since musical rhythm improves limb coordination, posture, balance, and gait (walking speed, frequency, etc.) .
In a randomized controlled single-blinded study (SB-RCT), researchers tested music’s effects on 18 Parkinson’s patients. Twelve hourly music sessions over a six-week period improved brain function. Listening to music helped improve verbal memory, language, and attention in the patients .
In another study (SB-RCT), music therapy was beneficial for emotions in Parkinson’s patients. After three months of music therapy, patients’ symptoms improved in comparison to the control (physical therapy) group .
Besides improving movement, the music therapy sessions helped with emotional functions and improved both mood and quality of life .
However, there are some drawbacks to the studies as small sample size, short duration, and lack of long-term assessment. Also, more tools to evaluate psychological and motor outcomes would help develop effective music therapy .
13) Helps Early Stage Huntington’s Disease Patients
Huntington’s disease patients progressively lose brain white and gray matter as well as their movement and cognitive functions .
A pilot study of five early-to-moderate Huntington’s disease patients tested the effects of drumming and rhythm exercises. After two months of training, the patients had improved executive functions (thinking skills) and white matter structure .
However, in a study (RCT) of 63 advanced-stage Huntington’s disease patients, group music therapy had no additional beneficial effects, while group behavioral therapy was more effective in improving Huntington’s symptoms, such as communication and behavior .
So, while music therapy may help early-stage Huntington’s patients, it may not effective in the advanced stages.
14) Aids Stroke Rehabilitation
Music therapy helps patients undergoing stroke rehabilitation by using rhythm to improve the recovery of arm movements and walking pace .
Melody and rhythm exercises also help train speech production in stroke patients with speaking problems .
Additionally, active music therapy improves mood and increases social interaction .
In an interview study of 60 patients, music listening helped them to calm down, relax, sleep better, and improve their mood. The patients also increased their movement during music listening by dancing or moving to the beat of the music .
In a review, music listening enhanced brain recovery and prevented negative mood in the early stages of stroke recovery. There was a correlation between decreased depression and improved verbal memory .
The positive effects of music on mood and brain function may be due to the increase in dopamine and reduced stress levels .
15) Improves Symptoms in Children with Autism
Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by problems with social interactions and communication. Currently, different types of therapy are used to develop social skills in children with autism. These include social stories, video modeling, behavioral training, and peer-mediated strategies .
Music therapy is currently gaining attention as a potential therapy. It is cost-effective, easy to use, safe, noninvasive, and has minimal side effects. When children listen to music or play instruments, it helps with their social skills and motor behavior (movements) .
A study tested the effects of music therapy on 27 autistic children, finding that music therapy improved social skills in children with mild to moderate autism .
In this study, the children were encouraged to react to music and find methods to communicate with others while listening to music. They were able to interact and communicate with others through speech and nonverbal cues. Even after the therapy ended, the effectiveness of music therapy was persistent .
In a meta-analysis of 10 randomized controlled trials, music therapy was effective in improving social skills in autistic children. Additionally, both nonverbal and verbal communication slightly improved, which resulted in better parent-child relationships .
Reduces Vocal Stereotypy In Children With Autism
Vocal stereotypy is any speech that has no meaning or context. It can include babbling, squealing, singing, grunting, and phrases unrelated to the current situation. Vocal stereotypy occurs in many autistic children .
Previous studies have shown that music and other auditory stimulation decreases vocal stereotypy in autistic children. Yet, there were conflicting results on its long-term effects in the studies. Some results showed improvement after the end of the study while others did not .
In a case study, two autistic children had decreased vocal stereotypy incidences immediately during the 15-minute music therapy sessions compared to sessions without music .
After the therapy sessions had ended, the two autistic children had fewer vocal stereotypy incidences compared to before the studies started .
While music may have small effects on reducing vocal stereotypy, additional studies with more participants are needed .
16) Epilepsy Treatment
Music is a potential treatment for epilepsy. There is evidence that listening to music helps to stop seizures in both children and adults.
Low dopamine levels in parts of the brain (striatal and hippocampal areas) cause seizures. In a review, researchers found that listening to Mozart’s music decreases seizure frequency in epileptic children, possibly due to its ability to increase dopamine levels in the brain .
A potential mechanism involves mirror neurons, which link auditory stimulation to the part of the brain that controls movement. These neurons are active when an individual is performing an action while exposed to visual or musical stimulation .
However, more studies are necessary to clarify music’s effects on the brain. Music also triggers epilepsy in patients (musicogenic epilepsy). Since its mechanisms are still unclear, music should not yet be used as an epilepsy treatment .
17) Helps Reduce Pain
In one study (RCT) of 80 school-aged children, music reduced pain and patients required less morphine (pain reliever) compared to the control group. Music seemed to distract the children and make them endure the pain .
In a systematic review of 51 studies, listening to music slightly reduced pain intensity and opioid (pain reliever) need. Researchers concluded that music’s benefits on pain intensity are small .
Although it’s safe and cost-effective, music should not be used as the primary treatment for pain. Since its positive effects are small, the clinical relevance of music is unclear .
Additionally, music therapy is less effective at treating migraines and headaches than an attention placebo. So while it may reduce the need for a pain reliever, it is not useful for treating migraines .
18) Improves Quality of Life in Cancer Patients
Stress, anxiety, and depression all negatively affect cancer patients.
In one study, rats were injected with cancer cells and exposed to sound stress at night and to music for five hours in the morning. The music increased T cells, which improved the immune and the anti-cancer responses .
In a review of 22 (RCT) studies, music therapy had a beneficial effect on anxiety and a small positive effect on fatigue, blood pressure, and heart rate in cancer patients [R].
While it cannot stop cancer growth itself, music improves quality of life [R].
19) Improves Appetite
Listening to music while eating helps increase a person’s appetite and food intake. In a study of 78 college students, the participants reported a higher food and drink intake when listening to music .
In the same study, their meal durations were longer compared to silent meals, and the volume and speed of the music had no effect on meal size or duration .
Interestingly, music also stimulates dementia patients to eat more. Soothing dinner music reduced anxiety, irritability, and depressed moods in 20 patients. Also, patients ate more food when listening to pop music compared to a control period of silence .
20) Improves Your Mood and Reduces Road Rage
Listening to music may also improve your mood while driving. This can possibly help prevent anxiety or “road rage” incidences .
In a study (RCT), 19 drivers had an improved mood and a more relaxed body state when they drove while listening to music. Music did not impair driving performance .
Noises and sounds may overstimulate older adults with dementia. Certain types of music might cause agitation .
Although rare, music causes seizures in some people. This disorder is called musicogenic epilepsy. Listening, playing, or even thinking of music can trigger seizures. In many cases, a specific stimulus, for example, church bells, might also trigger seizures .
Musical obsessions are a mild symptom of obsession and can occur in OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) patients. The OCD patients usually have irrational or nonsensical tunes persistently sound in their mind. They attempt to suppress the obsessions by substituting other thoughts .