Classical Music—Healing More Than Just the Soul

Research and human experience affirm that certain kinds of music can have a profound effect
September 15, 2020 Updated: September 15, 2020

“Mozart makes you believe in God because it cannot be by chance that such a phenomenon arrives into this world and leaves such an unbounded number of unparalleled masterpieces.” — Georg Solti

It seems like only yesterday that I first heard it. It was so beautiful, so stirring, I was moved down to my very soul.

It was the summer before my third-grade year, while I was visiting family in Morgantown, West Virginia, that my aunt Veronica sat down to play the piano. I hadn’t even known she could play, but boy, could she ever!

What came forth amazed my ears! I’d grown up listening to music, but nothing like this. As my aunt’s fingers so nimbly glided across the expanse of the keyboard, the sounds of Mozart and Tchaikovsky filled the air with a lightness and airiness that’s hard to put into words.

I was hooked from the first moment I heard it.

When I returned home, I told my mom I had to learn to play the piano. It was something I felt driven to do, though we didn’t even own a piano at the time.

Of course, I didn’t want to play just any music—it had to be classical music. This was something that thrilled my eventual piano teacher, Mrs. Rinehart, as all her other students wanted to play pop music. But the pop and rock music I was accustomed to just couldn’t compare, couldn’t produce the same sense of wonder and majesty, that classical music could.

Thus began my journey into the world of classical music.

It Moves the Soul

Just what is it that makes classical music resonate so much with us, that moves us in a way no other music has the power to do?

Clemency Burton-Hill, the author of “Year of Wonder: Classical Music to Enjoy Day by Day,” says, “I believe the greatest works of music are engines of empathy: they allow us to travel without moving into other lives, ages, souls.” She says classical music has benefited her life in a myriad of ways.

Vardinistar says on the website My Story that “Classical music touches a human’s heart and soul, makes him better, gives him ideas and peace. Why do churches like classical music so much? Because it helps to find the connection with God. Not without a reason, people say that classical music is divine.”

He agrees with what the ancients knew to be true, that “classical music can heal your soul and mind because your body reacts to its vibrations, rhythm, tempo.”

The Ancients Views on Music

Ancient cultures were well aware of music’s healing abilities.

Composer Gao Yuan, of the Shen Yun Symphony Orchestra, explains the importance of music in ancient China.

“Our ancestors believed that music has the power to harmonize a person’s soul in ways that medicine could not. In ancient China, one of music’s earliest purposes was for healing. The Chinese word, or character, for medicine actually comes from the character for music.”

Interestingly, this character also is related to the word happiness. Dimitrios Dermentzioglou, on the site Uplifters, explains how the two relate.

“Medicine is characterized by bitterness, yet a patient is able to regain health and happiness only after suffering its bitterness.”

He notes that the Great Yellow Emperor, known as the forefather of the Chinese people, developed a deep understanding of the power of music after being inspired—by a divine fairy in a dream no less—to use drums to defeat his enemies in battle.

Gao says it was during the Yellow Emperor’s rule that “people discovered the relationship between the pentatonic scale, the five elements, and the human body’s five internal [organs] and five sensory organs.”

He notes that music was also used to influence a person’s behavior.

“During Confucius’s time, scholars used music’s calming properties to improve and strengthen people’s character and conduct.”

Music was also understood as divinely inspired in ancient Greece. The word “music” comes from the Muses, the patron goddesses of creative endeavors. Music and healing were also tied together. The ancient Greeks put one god, Apollo, in charge of both music and healing, demonstrating their belief that the two are closely related.

Hektoen International, the humanities journal owned by the Hektoen Institute of Medicine in Chicago, notes that “The Odyssey told of the bleeding of Odysseus’s wounds from a wild boar only being stopped with a musical incantation, and the poet Pratinas in the 6th century B.C. recorded plague in Sparta being quelled by the music of the composer Thaletas.”

The Greeks believed that music had to resonate with the body and soul in order to be beneficial, and viewed music as a way of connecting the soul of man with the universe.

Modern medicine is rediscovering the many health benefits of music, and particularly, those of classical music.

Modern Medicine and Music

Today, a number of prominent medical institutions incorporate music into their treatment plans.

For example, Johns Hopkins Center for Music and Medicine has formed a choral group called ParkiSonics, where participants with Parkinson’s disease demonstrate improvement in both movement and vocal expression, which are often impaired in Parkinson’s.

“It’s fascinating and powerful to think that music, something that has been floating around in our environment forever—that this natural, omnipresent human activity has demonstrable benefit as treatment,” says Sarah Hoover, co-director of the center, on the center’s website.

Weill Cornell Medicine, a graduate college of Cornell University, has developed a music and medicine program and even formed its own orchestra. They’ve also collaborated with Juilliard to provide mini-concerts for patients and their families, hospital staff, and the surrounding NYC community. They plan to offer a semester-long course to medical students on music and medicine in the future.

Claudius Conrad, M.D., Ph.D., of MD Anderson Cancer Center, is a pianist and surgeon who believes in the healing power of music. He notes on the center’s website, “in the Middle Ages, popular prescriptions involved specific musical combinations. The example he offers involves alternating between playing the flute and harp to alleviate gout.”

During his fellowship in ICU medicine, Conrad conducted a study on his patients and found a novel stress pathway that mediates music relaxation. He discovered that some intensive care patients could be spared sedative medication when listening to classical music.

The medicinal effects of classical music have been studied by researchers for more insight into their healing potential.

Decreased Blood Pressure and Heart Rate

There are several studies showing that classical music can decrease both blood pressure and heart rate.

One study in the British Journal of Health Psychology compared the effects of classical, pop, and jazz music. It showed that “participants who listened to classical music had significantly lower post-task systolic blood pressure levels than did participants who heard no music. Other musical styles did not produce significantly better recovery than silence.”

A 2015 study by professor Peter Sleight of Oxford University found that listening to slower pieces by Verdi, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, as well as Puccini, significantly lowered blood pressure, confirming other findings.

In another study, Hans-Joachim Trappe and Gabriele Voit demonstrated that music by Mozart and Strauss markedly lowered not just the subjects’ heart rate, but also their blood pressure by nearly five systolic points, which is better than some medications. By comparison, music by ABBA didn’t demonstrate any improvement. Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor demonstrated the strongest effect.

A study by Itao, Komazawa, and Kobayashi in Scientific Research Publishing revealed that classical music improved heart rate variability, indicating lowered autonomic nervous system activity, and thus, lower stress levels. Classical music also increased blood flow, as well as body surface temperature, both signs of a state of relaxation.

Improved Mood, Memory, and More

So what else can classical music do for your health?

Studies show that classical music can help not only relieve stress and anxiety but listening to 50 minutes a day has even proven more effective than psychotherapy in treating low- to medium-grade depression, according to a small study published in The Arts in Psychotherapy.

Classical music has been shown to improve alertness and concentration, leading to greater productivity. Memory is also enhanced when listening to classical music, with some studies even showing benefits in improving dementia.

In addition, improvement in ADHD, particularly when listening to pieces such as Handel’s “Water Music” or Bach’s “Brandenburg Concertos,” has been demonstrated. Classical music helps put the brain into “alpha mode,” thereby improving focus, concentration, and the ability to learn. It’s even been shown to regulate genes responsible for brain function, according to research at the University of Helsinki.

Studies have demonstrated that classical music also improves the quality of sleep, helps with patient self-disclosure (something useful when discussing traumatic events), and even aids in decreasing pain.

A study in the International Journal of Critical Illness & Injury Science found that classical music aids in ICU patient recovery.

“The most benefit from music on health and therefore on the intensive care patient is seen in classical and in meditation music, whereas heavy metal or techno are ineffective or even dangerous. This kind of music is effective and can be utilized as an effective intervention in patients with cardiovascular disturbances, pain, and intensive care medicine,” the study reads.

But not all music is therapeutic. The negative effects of certain types of music has been demonstrated in various studies.

One of the most fascinating studies was done by a Virginia high school student, David Merrell, in 1997. His award-winning science experiment was covered by Virginian-Pilot, the state’s largest daily newspaper.

“The rising junior captured top honors in regional and state science fairs and earned accolades from the Navy and the CIA,” the Pilot reported.

Merrell looked at the effects of music on mice as they moved through a maze. After establishing a baseline of 10 minutes to navigate the maze, he found the control group of mice, which weren’t exposed to music, were able to cut five minutes off their time. That feat was beaten by mice that listened to classical music, and managed to cut their time by eight and a half minutes.

Meanwhile, mice that were exposed to hard-rock music took 20 minutes longer to navigate the maze.

“I had to cut my project short because all the hard-rock mice killed each other,” Merrell said at the time. “None of the classical mice did that at all.”

Merrell isn’t the only researcher to notice that classical music improved maze times among mice. In fact, in a study published in Neurological Research in 2005, the effect was described as the “generalized Mozart effect.”

“The Mozart group exhibited significant enhancements compared with the control mice,” the researchers noted.

However, it doesn’t seem others have repeated Merrell’s hard rock comparison.

Let Classical Music Brighten Your Life

With so many benefits to mind, body, and soul, it’s unfortunate that we aren’t being exposed more to classical music. My son said a teacher told the kids that classical music is “just boring.”

What a shame. My guess is that she was never exposed to it enough to develop an appreciation.

So, just how can we increase our appreciation for classical music?

First, visit your local symphony, whether in person or online. I’ve taken my son to our Richmond Symphony since he was 5, and he’s especially enjoyed a series called LolliPops, which introduces kids to classical music in a way that’s fun and entertaining.

There are a variety of books and movies on classical music and composers. “Beethoven Lives Upstairs,” which LolliPops adapted from a 1992 HBO original movie, is one of my son’s favorites.

There are also many courses out there. Coursera offers one on the wonders of classical music, while Udemy offers classes on ear training and adventures in classical music. And to explore some of classical music’s best works, Classic FM has compiled a list of pieces that “will 100 percent change your life.”

And don’t forget to check out your local libraries and museums for talks and live performances.

So what if you really want to get to know a piece of music? Chad Hagy, on the website Our Pastimes, suggests researching the history of the piece, learning a little about the composer’s life, and then finding a quiet place to listen to the piece—over and over again. Then watch as your blood pressure comes down, and your mood improves, all while your knowledge expands.

To help kids develop an appreciation for classical music, check out Charlene Habermeyer’s book, “Good Music Brighter Children,” and her website Good Parenting, Brighter Children. She offers a music course along with a guide geared toward kids, from grade school through college.

Habermeyer recognizes the power of classical music in helping children study and learn, noting that “the American Psychological Association (APA) found in 20 different studies that elementary school children listen, focus, and learn better when listening to certain pieces of classical music.”

There seems to be something special about classical music.

My aunt Veronica knew this. Unfortunately, she died last year. I’d never thought to tell her she was the reason I’d learned to play classical piano. When I mentioned this on her memorial page, her husband and children said she would’ve been so happy to know she’d inspired her same love of classical music in me.

While it may seem like a simple thing, classical music can bring so much to our lives. Even the composers recognized there was more to their music than meets the eye.  As Johann Sebastian Bach said, “I play the notes as they are written, but it is God who makes the music.”

Ludwig van Beethoven concurred, saying, “Music is the language of God.”

So why not tap into this source of joy sent down from the heavens? It may change your life in ways you never imagined!

Tatiana Denning, D.O., is a family medicine physician who focuses on wellness and prevention. She believes in empowering her patients with the knowledge and skills necessary to maintain and improve their own health.