You know how music makes you feel. It can energize you when you’re tired, relax you when you’re stressed, make you laugh or make you cry.
Many of us use music—like coffee and alcohol—every day for pleasure and to boost our mood. But we may not understand how deeply music affects our brain chemistry.
Canadian psychologists from McGill University reviewed over 400 studies. They looked at how music engages the body’s neurochemical systems for reward, motivation, pleasure, stress, arousal, immunity, and social affiliation. They found that music’s neurochemical activity can boost the body’s immune system, reduce anxiety, help regulate mood, and increase social bonding.
They also suggested that doctors and therapists should start taking music much more seriously as a calming agent before surgery, or even during procedures, like dental work.
The review appeared in Trends in Cognitive Science. The researchers believe that music may operate on the brain’s natural opioids. They noted that like other pleasures, enjoying music consists of both anticipating a favorite song, and actually hearing it. The brain chemical dopamine which is linked to reward is involved in both stages.
Researchers gave people the drug naltrexone to block opioid signals in the brain. The people reported lower levels of pleasure from their favorite song. They still enjoyed the anticipation of hearing the song suggesting that dopamine is part of music’s pleasure but opioids are critical to the enjoyment and effects of music.
Earlier research suggested that opioids from music account for the ability of music to raise a person’s pain threshold. One team from the Cochrane Collaboration reviewed 51 studies on pain and music. They found postoperative patients exposed to music had a five percent reduction in pain. Some of the studies showed that patients exposed to music had a 70 percent greater likelihood of having pain relief. Other studies showed that two hours after surgery patients exposed to music required 18.4 percent less morphine, and 24 hours after surgery they required 15.4 percent less morphine.
Another study showed listening to music before an operation lowered anxiety levels in patients just as well as taking the prescription drug diazepam (Valium). Benzodiazepines like Valium are often prescribed before surgery but trigger side effects like amnesia, agitation, and hyperactivity. By contrast, say the Canadian researchers, music is noninvasive, inexpensive, convenient, natural, and has no adverse side effects.
The Canadian research also revealed 15 studies showing that the stress hormone cortisol dropped after listening to music. Other hormones affected by music include serotonin and oxytocin.
Many other studies show the beneficial effects of music on health. Music has been shown to:
- Reduce depression
- Alleviate sleeping problems
- Slow heart rate
- Enhance cognitive recovery after stroke
- Improve emotional understanding in autistic children
- Decrease congestive heart failure
- Improve volume, fat and calories of breast milk