Is Listening to Music Good for Your Health?
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There’s nothing like your favorite song to lighten the burden of a bad day. A pleasant melody soothes your soul. The right beat powers you through a workout or long, boring drive.
However, music is so much more than a catchy tune when it comes to health.
Few people know this better than Mary Kauffman, DMA, MT-BC, NMT, a music therapist at Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Dr. Kauffman also leads the Sylvester Singers Survivorship Choir. Music therapy, Dr. Kauffman says, uses “research and evidence-based individualized music interventions to achieve non-musical goals.”
Her goals include helping patients manage the effects of cancer and treatment. Patients who suffer from “chemo brain” improve their memory using this form of therapy. They also learn to manage anxiety and depression and reduce nausea and other side effects.
If music is this effective with cancer patients, why not use it to improve your health and wellbeing?
Your body responds in various ways when you turn on the tunes.
How you react depends on the tempo, beat, and rhythmic patterns. Research shows that music can lower heart rate and blood pressure, increase blood flow, trigger dopamine and serotonin release in the brain, reduce pain, and improve memory and focus. Its impact on the brain is fascinating.
“Music engages the reward system in your brain; it aids focus and helps dissipate intrusive thoughts. It also facilitates entrainment,” Dr. Kauffman says.
The process of entrainment is the foundation of music therapy. It uses external stimulation like music to retrain the brain and behavior. Entrainment can promote relaxation, happiness, sleep, focus, and motivation.
Entrainment also helps people regain control of their movements, speech, memory, and attention span after a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It’s also used to help people with Parkinson’s disease.
Using music to enhance health and wellbeing
We can learn from the ways therapists and researchers use music to improve health:
Many people avoid dental care due to anxiety. Some researchers recommend that dentists offer music therapy to highly anxious patients and children.
“Music therapists can teach patients music-based anxiety management skills prior to dental treatments and help them gain a sense of control and safety,” the study said.
Anytime you feel anxious, “Stop what you’re doing, take a deep breath, and notice what’s playing in the background. It’s a calming, instant reset. If you’re using music for relaxation, engage in mindful listening – don’t do anything else except listen,” Dr. Kauffman says.
“Melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic patterns create expectancies in the listener that resolve; this phenomenon is satisfying and can stimulate serotonin and dopamine production,” says Dr. Kauffman.
To improve concentration, train your brain to “Focus on one element in a piece of music and follow it through to the end of the piece. Don’t focus on the voice or melody, and don’t pick the music you love or have strong memories attached to. If it’s pop music, focus on the bass or drum pattern. Or start simple by focusing on the cello in Pachelbel’s Canon in D.“
A review of over 80 research trials underscores Dr. Kauffman’s experience with patients. The study suggested that music therapy and music medicine interventions may benefit anxiety, depression, hope, pain, fatigue, heart rate, and blood pressure in adults with cancer. When delivered by a trained therapist, music therapy appeared to improve these patients’ quality of life and fatigue levels.
The results are promising but not always conclusive.
“There are so many factors involved with music and physiology.”
A lullaby won’t always solve sleeplessness.
“It depends on the underlying cause – music therapy won’t help sleep apnea. If intrusive thoughts prevent you from sleeping, combining music with a diversion exercise may help,” Dr. Kauffman says.
Relaxing music, deep breathing, and visualizing a pleasant scene could help you drift off.
“Music helps some dementia patients orient for short periods of time. It provides comfort and happiness and may help them bond with and recognize relatives,” Dr. Kauffman says.
She also uses music memory training exercises in patients who struggle with confusion and forgetfulness due to “chemo brain.”
Two UHealth researchers hope to develop therapeutic protocols using music for patients with dementia or mild cognitive impairment.
A few years ago, Xiaoyan Sun, M.D., Ph.D., a cognitive neurologist with UHealth’s Memory Disorders Clinic, saw a patient with aphasia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“She couldn’t talk, but she could sing the entire ‘Happy Birthday’ song to me,” she says.
Dr. Sun never forgot that encounter. Working with Teresa Lesiuk, Ph.D., a music therapist and program director for the Music Therapy Program at the University’s Frost School of Music, she is developing a study to use music therapy to improve working memory and social cognition in patients with memory disorders.
“Our study would look at an MRI scan of the patient’s brain before and after listening to music to see if the brain network connection is altered. There will be three study groups. While in the MRI, one study group will listen to autobiographic music (music they grew up with that has strong emotional connections). The second group will listen to novel (new) music. The third group will have only silence,” she says.
“Our goal is to characterize each group and develop music therapy protocols. It’s already established that children perform better if they learn to play a musical instrument; it’s not established for the elderly, but it’s worth exploring.”
In a previous study, Dr. Lesiuk demonstrated significant improvements in cognitive control in patients with Parkinson’s disease who underwent 30 hours of piano training.
How to enhance your memory through music
- Singing in a choir
- Playing an instrument, even something simple like a drum
- Listening and responding, such as the call and response traditions of some churches
- Tapping the pause button after a phrase or two of your favorite song and writing down however many words you can remember
If you exercise to music, you know the faster the tempo, the harder you work. Use that to your advantage when you want to add a few reps or ramp up your cardio workout.
“A strong, rhythmic pulse prompts your body to synchronize to the beat, and an innate desire for pattern completion keeps you moving. And using music you like adds an extra boost through your brain’s reward pathways,” Dr. Kauffman says.
Choose a slower tempo when you want to relax with yoga or stretching.
“A slow tempo slows down the heart rate.”
Muscle strength and coordination
Zhan Liang, Ph.D., R.N., an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Nursing and Health Studies, developed an intervention to improve muscle strength in patients coming out of intensive care.
Her study participants exercised their upper and lower extremities while listening to an individualized music-guided playlist. After performing exercises twice daily for five days, they showed significant improvements in handgrip, strength, and mobility.
Her findings suggest that a music-guided exercise intervention can potentially improve muscle strength and prevent further deterioration in intensive care unit survivors.
Several researchers have studied music’s ability to relieve pain.
In 2018, the International Association for the Study of Pain published a review of several music-induced analgesia studies. Analgesia means the inability to feel pain.
Music, the article said, might reduce pain just by diverting the patient’s attention. Another pain-relieving benefit could include its “. . . positive effect on anxiety, which . . . is known to affect the pain experience.”
Whether listening to music to relax or relieve pain, personal preference is key. The music chosen by the patient had “a greater analgesic effect than music chosen by the researcher.”
In healthy study participants, self-chosen, well-loved music significantly reduced pain intensity. While the researchers speculated this might be due to pleasant meanings and memories connected with a specific piece of music more than an analgesic capacity, the effect is the same.
As Dr. Kauffman points out, “Music therapy is highly individualized. There are patients who don’t engage with classical music; they relax to heavy metal. It’s important for me to take a nonjudgmental approach with my patients.”
Music balances our parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response – our body’s ability to release the chemicals and brain signals that allow us to slow down, breathe deeply, and produce more blood flow to the brain.
“Repetitive patterns in music can induce a relaxation response. Listening to preferred music can shift nervous system activity from the fight-or-flight response back to serenity,” Dr. Kauffman says.
A recent study confirms these stress-reducing qualities.
As in the heavy metal example, what relaxes one person might annoy another.
“Spa music might not be good for highly functioning active minds or individuals with ADHD or autism. Speed, complexity or simplicity all factor into whether it is relaxing for a particular person.”
Dr. Kauffman encourages people to sing in the shower or car, and bang on a drum or box. Fast or slow, simple or complex, music is an easy, enjoyable way to improve your mental and physical health.
If you have questions, email Sylvester Cancer’s music therapy program.
Nancy Moreland is a regular contributor to UMiami Health News. She has written for several major health care systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Her writing also appears in the Chicago Tribune and U.S. News & World Report.
Update: Medically reviewed and approved by Dr. Kauffman in February 2023.