Music has been used therapeutically for a number of conditions -- from improving respiration and lowering blood pressure to reducing heart rate and relaxing muscle tension. It has been used to reduce pain, relieve stress and anxiety, influence mood and stimulate movement. Listening to soothing music has a different result from listening to energizing music, and the effect on the body is measurable.
Music passes through several areas on its journey from the ear to the rest of the body. Sound waves are picked up by the middle ear, causing the eardrums to vibrate. The brain turns this mechanical energy into electrical energy, which is deciphered by the "thinking" part of the brain, the cerebral cortex. It then travels to the brain centers that control arousal, emotion, anxiety, creativity and pleasure. Next it goes to the hypothalamus, which controls respiration, heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature, as well as nerves in the stomach and skin. This entire trip takes less than a heartbeat.
A study by British and Italian researchers published in "Heart" magazine shows that listening to fast, upbeat music accelerates respiration and heart rate, while listening to slow, meditative music has a relaxing effect, slowing breathing and heart rate. The researchers studied 24 healthy young men and women, half of whom were trained musicians, half with no musical training. They found these effects to be stronger in people with musical training, who had learned to synchronize their breathing with the musical segments. The musicians breathed faster with faster tempos and had slower baseline breathing rates than non-musicians.
Music and Healing
Dr. Claudius Conrad, a 30 year-old surgical resident at Harvard Medical School who also holds a degree in music, conducted his own research on music and the healing process in critically ill ICU patients. While off sedation, the patients received a one-hour session of slow movements of Mozart's piano sonatas. Stress hormones, cytokines, heart rate and blood pressure were measured before and after. Music significantly reduced the need for sedative drugs. Plasma concentrations of growth hormone rose, while levels of interleukin-6 and epinephrine fell. Reduction in systemic stress hormone levels was associated with significantly reduced blood pressure and heart rate.
Perhaps as more research is done on the beneficial effects of music on physiological events, it will replace some medications and become an integral part of medicinal therapy. Dr. Conrad pointed out that musical training was a necessary part of medical training in the Middle Ages. Even today, he believes music in the operating room not only helps the patients but has a beneficial effect on surgeons by helping to modulate stress.