Composing music is one of mankind’s most basic instincts. Throughout centuries, music has been known to soothe infants, trigger past memories, temper pain, aid sleep, and affect an array of other emotions. Think back at the last time a song really moved you, there’s a reason people refer to music as the “universal language”. Bob Marley also understood the power of music when he said in one of his ballads, “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain”. The litany of suspected benefits has always remained long and now a growing body of research has investigators focusing attention on this musical mystery. Just why music seems to have these powerful effects, though, remains elusive.

There’s a lot to learn, said Robert Zatorre, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he studies the topic at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Music has been shown to help with such things as pain and memory, he said, but “we don’t know for sure that it does improve our [overall] health.” And though there are some indications that music can affect both the body and the mind, “whether it translates to health benefits is still being studied,” Zatorre said.

In one study, Zatorre and his research colleagues found that people who rated music they listened to as pleasurable were more likely to report emotional arousal than those who did not like the music they were listening to. From the investigators standpoint, he explained, “it’s one thing if people say, ‘When I listen to this music, I love it.’ But it doesn’t tell what’s happening with their body.” Researchers need to prove that music not only has an effect, but that the effect translates to health benefits long-term, he said.

One question to be answered is whether emotions that are stirred up by music really affect people physiologically, said Dr. Michael Miller, a professor of medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Miller found that listening to self-selected positive music can improve blood flow and ultimately promote vascular health. So if music can calm the person and improve their blood flow, will that translate to fewer heart attacks and deaths? “That’s yet to be studied,” he said. “Endorphins or endorphin-like compounds are released from the brain in response to pleasurable emotions,” Miller continued. “That directly activates the endorphins to release nitric oxide. It’s a protective chemical, one of the important chemicals produced by the endothelium [the inner lining of the blood vessels]. It’s important in biological and physiological functions — it causes blood vessels to dilate, it reduces inflammation, it prevents platelets from sticking and cholesterol from being taken up into plaque.”

Stress reduction that results from listening to good music might also explain the health benefits, said Aniruddh Patel, a senior researcher at the Neuroscience Institute in San Diego. Patel conducted a study where music was reported to help people who’d had a stroke recover their sight. “The brain is trying to heal itself,” he said. “The less stress hormone floating around up there, the better the brain can do its job.” That’s possibly why it worked, he said. Research continues to flow from institutes across the country as investigators try to uncover the harmonious relationship between music and health benefits.

– Anthony Isaac Palacios

SOURCES: Michael Miller, M.D., professor, medicine, and director, Center for Preventive Cardiology, University of Maryland Medical Center, Baltimore; Robert Zatorre, Ph.D., Montreal Neurological Institute, and professor, department of neurology and neurosurgery, McGill University, Montreal; Aniruddh Patel, Ph.D., Esther J. Burnham senior fellow, Neurosciences Institute, San Diego; March 23, 2009, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; Oct. 16, 2009, PLoS One online; November 2009, Medical Hypotheses