By: Patricia Ambroziak
Did I scare you? Unless you have a fear of capital letters or exclamation points, probably not. Now, if I had come behind you while you were quietly reading and unexpectedly rousted you with a hearty "Hello!," perhaps I would have frightened you and the resulting rush of hormones would set your heart racing, momentarily paralyze you in your tracks and prepare you, albeit needlessly, for action. We are all familiar with the physiological changes that result from being startled by a loud noise, but what about the effects of other sounds? Do pleasant, organized sounds, such as music, affect the mind, body and mood? A large body of research says "yes."
Researchers have uncovered an astonishing number of benefits derived from listening to music. Evidently, music has the power to energize, soothe, change emotional outlook, boost immunity, reduce pain, speed recovery, lower blood pressure, improve focus and IQ as well as aid weight loss. These are just a sampling of scientific findings. How is this possible? Hearing is a physiological process involving the ears, brain, body and nervous system. Music, like all sound energy, can drive changes in our minds and bodies as we listen to it.
HOW THE BRAIN "HEARS"
Sound, be it the music of a violin or the patter of rain on a rooftop, is vibrations in the air around us. The visible outer ear captures and funnels sound waves into the middle ear. The captured waves vibrate the eardrum and tiny bones of the middle ear to amplify and pass the sound to the inner ear. The inner ear's cochlea (i.e., a fluid-filled coil lined with neurons) converts the mechanical energy of these vibrations into electrical energy and transmits it to the brain. As the transformed sound waves move through the brain, they can generate motor responses, emotions, hormone release and higher order processes (e.g., recognition and memory recall). In other words, the brain guides the body's response (e.g., physiological, emotional, biochemical, etc.) as it recognizes the sound. For example, a loud noise may frighten us, while the sound of ocean waves may calm us.
The use of music in healing is at least as old as the writings of Aristotle and Plato. Egyptian medical papyri and religious texts, such as the Bible, document the use of music to alleviate illness and distress. In the 1800s, researchers in America and Europe examined the relationship between music and body/mind states as well as described music's effects on cardiac output, respiratory rate, pulse and blood pressure, cites ethnomusicologist Elizabeth Miles, M.A., author of Tune Your Brain: Using Music to Manage Your Mind, Body, and Mood and producer of the 10-CD Tune Your Brain series (Deutsche Grammophon). By the 1980s, studies aimed at discovering music's clinical applications intensified. Currently, scientific literature brims with music research.
In The Power of Music, Susan Hallam, Ph.D. of the Department of Psychology and Special Education at the Institute of London, reviewed over 200 music-related scientific studies, reports and books. She notes that research indicates music has potent therapeutic effects and can induce changes in behavior, mood as well as emotional, physiological and cognitive state. For example, it can reduce anxiety, alleviate pain, reduce drug dosages needed in clinical settings by as much as 50 percent, promote well-being, improve psychiatric patients' symptoms, alleviate depression and promote rehabilitation and recovery. Changes in biochemicals, such as endorphins, cortisol (i.e., a stress-related hormone) and immune system-related molecules, may occur.
Hallam notes that while not every study has shown the predicted effect, "evidence suggests music influences physiological arousal in the expected direction ... exciting music leads to increased arousal, calming music the reverse." Thus, on a physiological level, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rates, muscular tension, motor responses and skin temperature tend to increase in response to loud, fast-paced music and decrease in response to slow, soft music.
Hallam also cites studies illustrating music's effects on activity levels, mood, concentration, health, well-being and intelligence. For example, researchers have shown music can influence levels of secretory immunoglobin A (i.e., IgA, which increases during immune system activity), speed at which shoppers move through a store, performance during a karate drill and on certain types of IQ tests, work productivity, inducement of elated or depressed moods and hospital patients' perception of pain.
Music has also been used to manipulate consumers' shopping, eating and drinking habits. For example, a study showed women drank soda faster with rapid music in the background. In another study, French wine outsold German wine when French music was played and vice versa when German music was played.
This article only begins to describe music's powerful potential. Research supports its many benefits and continues to uncover new ways it can enhance quality of life. For more information about music-related research and/or music therapy (i.e., using music to reach non-musical goals), visit the Music and Science Information Computer Archive (MuSICA) at http://musica.cnlm.uci.edu/index .html or the American Music Therapy Association (AMTA) at http://www.musictherapy.org/. Happy listening!