The Surprising Ways Music Serves as Medicine
We’ve been playing music since the Paleolithic Era, 40,000 years ago. Music as therapy has been documented since at least biblical times. The first music therapy experiment was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1914. As to why he placed a phonograph in the operating room as his patients lay awake during surgery, the physician explained it was “a means of calming and distracting my patients from the horror of the situation.”
Now that we have anesthesia, music is used to calm nerves before surgery. Normally we use Valium-type drugs like midazolam (sold as Versed), but they can have a variety of side effects, including sometimes even making people more agitated.
A study from Sweden sought to determine if relaxing music has a greater anxiety-reducing effect than a standard dose of the midazolam. Researchers whipped out some Kenny G, and the music worked significantly better than the drug. Those listening to Mr. G had lower anxiety scores, heart rates and blood pressures. This is perhaps the first report of any anti-anxiety therapy working not only as good as, but even better than, benzodiazepine drugs. The difference in side effects of relaxing music compared to the drug is obvious: There were none. Soft jazz causes no post-operative hangover. The researchers suggest we should start using music instead of midazolam.
Music may also reduce anxiety and pain in children undergoing minor medical and dental procedures, helping with blood draws and shots. It may even reduce the pain of spinal taps. However, Mozart is evidently powerless against the pain of circumcision.
It doesn’t take a randomized controlled trial to demonstrate that listening to music can be relaxing. Tell me something I don’t know. Well, if we take someone with a latex allergy and inject their skin with latex, they get a big, red, angry bump. But if we repeat the test after they’ve been listening to Mozart for 30 minutes, they develop a much smaller bump. That is, they have less of an allergic reaction. If you think that’s wild, get ready for this: Beethoven didn’t work. The subjects had the same reaction before and after listening to his music! Schubert, Hayden and Brahms didn’t work either, as all failed to reduce the allergic skin response. The reducing effect on allergic responses may be specific to Mozart.
So Mozart’s looking pretty good. But what if Mozart could be suppressing our immune systems in general? That would not be good. The same researchers also injected a chemical that causes reactions in everyone, not just in allergic people. Mozart had no effect. It seems Mozart suppresses only the pathological allergic reaction. If that isn’t crazy enough for you, the researchers drew subjects’ blood after the music, stuck their white blood cells in a petri dish with a little latex and measured the allergic antibody response. The white blood cells from the people exposed to Mozart had less of an allergic response even outside the body compared to cells taken from Beethoven blood. That is cool.
Music may even impact our metabolism. This inquiry started with a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found the resting energy expenditure (the amount of calories burned when just lying around) was lower in preterm infants when researchers piped in Mozart. This may explain why infants exposed to music put on weight faster, so much so they are able to go home earlier.
Gaining weight faster is great for premature babies, but not necessarily for adults. Could listening to music slow our metabolism and contribute to weight gain? No, one study found no effect on adults. But the researchers used Bach, not Mozart. Bach doesn’t cause a drop in energy expenditure in babies either. These data suggest there may be “more a ‘Mozart effect’ than a universal ‘music effect’.”
What if we just listen to music of our choice? Does that affect our metabolism? It turns out that listening to music appears to actually increase our metabolic rate, such that we burn an average of 27.6 more calories a day even just lying in bed. That’s only like six M&M’s worth, though, so it’s better to use music to get up and start dancing or exercising. Music can not only improve exercise enjoyment but also performance—a way to improve athletic performance that’s legal.
Male bodybuilders may be less enthused by using music. After listening to music for just 30 minutes, testosterone levels drop 14 percent in young men and go up 21 percent in young women. Do all kinds of music have this effect or just some types? Thirty minutes of silence had no effect on testosterone levels at all, while a half-hour of Mozart, jazz, pop or Gregorian chants all suppressed testosterone. What about a half-hour of people’s personal favorites? Testosterone levels were cut in half! Testosterone decreased in males under all music conditions, whereas testosterone increased in females. What is going on? Well, in men, testosterone is related to libido, dominance, and aggressiveness, whereas women get a bigger boost in testosterone from cuddling than from sex. So maybe we evolved using music as a way to ensure we all got along, like a melodious cold shower to keep everyone chill.
Michael Greger, M.D.