A Treatment Method That Is Music to the Ears

August 25, 2009 Updated: October 1, 2015

The effect of music therapy on physiological changes is just as pronounced as its impact on mood. (Photos.com )
The effect of music therapy on physiological changes is just as pronounced as its impact on mood. (Photos.com )
Amidst the clamor stemming from the current health care debate, it is reassuring to know that a more beautiful melody is flowing into the world of medicine. Overtures and symphonies are making their way into hospitals as more studies confirm the beneficial effects of music therapy.

Various cultures throughout history have used music as a means of healing and relaxation. Since the 1940s, music therapists in the United States have used music to improve patients’ communication skills and reduce their discomfort. A 2007 survey of over 1,900 U.S. health facilities discovered that 35 percent of them offer some form of music therapy, and this trend is increasing.

Patients enrolled in recovery programs that incorporate music therapy report more positive emotions and social interactions compared to those only receiving traditional treatment. In light of this, some researchers have begun recommending the integration of music in rehabilitation for stroke victims.

The effect of music therapy on physiological changes is just as pronounced as its impact on mood. A 2009 review of 23 studies found mounting evidence that listening to music reduces breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure for cardiac patients. The physiological pathways through which music causes these changes are unclear, but research by Dr. Claudius Conrad from Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital is providing new insight.

Conrad and his colleagues published a paper last year suggesting that music’s healing and sedative effects are orchestrated via stimulation and inhibition of three different stress hormones. In his study, Conrad had critically ill patients listen to an hour of slow Mozart sonatas while they were off sedation.

As expected, patients who underwent the music therapy had a 20 percent decrease in epinephrine and interleukin-6, stress hormones responsible for increasing heart rate and pro-inflammatory reactions, respectively. Ironically, the same patients also responded with a 50 percent spike in growth hormone, a hormone that promotes cell growth and metabolism. An increase in growth hormone is associated with stress, not relaxation.

Conrad offers an explanation to this puzzle: the increased growth hormone level is playing a disguised sedative effect. He says that the growth hormone causes a decrease in the activity of interleukin-6, which lowers inflammation that may otherwise lead to elevated blood pressure and heart rate.

While this theory is not yet widely accepted in the medical society, the beneficial effects of music therapy are undeniable—and that should be music to your ears.


Esoteric or Exoteric? Music in Medicine, pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=2258483

Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients, cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab006577.html

A Musician Who Performs With a Scalpel, nytimes.com/2008/05/20/health/20prof.html?_r=2&oref=slogin&ref=health&adxnnlx=1211306691-Nai8QOKwlJUrHq9d%201j2Yw&pagewanted=print