Everyone listens to and loves music, but few people know about its powerful health benefits. Listening to music reduces blood pressure, improves athletic performance, relieves anxiety and depression, and more. 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, it’s 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 .
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 or genres, each causing a different effect.
In one study, 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 .
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 It Works
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, 8].
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 [9, 1].
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 Therapy
1) High 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 one study, 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 .
2) Anxiety and Stress
Listening to music also helps reduce anxiety levels .
In a study 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 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 .
A study 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 .
One 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 poorly respond to drug treatments and experience many side effects .
Music therapy is a safe alternative 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 .
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 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 .
5) 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 .
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 one study, 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 .
7) Exercise Performance
Athletes use music to help increase motivation and performance. In one review, researchers stated that an individual’s perception of the music plays a big part in the effectiveness of music on exercise performance .
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 improved 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 .
However, the environment, type of exercise, and the exercisers’ perceptions can all influence how much music affects exercise performance .
8) Parkinson’s Disease
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, 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, 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 such 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 .
9) Stroke Recovery
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 .
Music therapy is currently gaining attention as a potential therapy for autism spectrum disorders. It seems to be 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) .
In one study, 27 autistic 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 .
Vocal stereotypy is any repetitive 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 decrease 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 .
While music may have small effects on reducing vocal stereotypy, additional studies with more participants are needed .
In one study 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 .
No valid clinical evidence supports the use of music therapy for any of the conditions in this section. Below is a summary of up-to-date animal studies, cell-based research, or low-quality clinical trials which should spark further investigation. However, you shouldn’t interpret them as supportive of any health benefit.
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, it’s still not certain if music has a big influence on cognitive ability .
Music may improve 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 .
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 .
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 may also trigger epilepsy in patients (musicogenic epilepsy). Since its mechanisms are still unclear, music therapy should not yet be used as epilepsy treatment .
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 .
17) “Road Rage”
Listening to music may also improve mood while driving. This can possibly help prevent anxiety and “road rage” .
In one study, 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 rarely, music may provoke 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 .