Most people would agree that listening to music can affect one’s emotional state. Many people listen to upbeat music when they want to raise their energy level, either for fun or motivation. Or, when they want to relax after a stressful day, soft classical music or light jazz may do the trick. In addition to mood, however, music has been shown to have positive physical effects on the body and many physicians prescribe it as a form of therapy.
As far back as ancient Greece, Plato referred to music as “the medicine of the soul,” writing that “the heavenly harmony of the music of the spheres” had the ability to affect people’s emotional and physical health. The formal concept of music therapy started to take hold in the 1940s, eventually leading to the formation of the American Association for Music Therapy in 1971.
Because the functions of the human body are governed by rhythms – such as our heartbeat, how we speak, when we sleep, and when we wake up – there is a natural connection to music. In fact, music can increase dopamine, heightening positive emotions in the reward centers of the brain. Today, physicians recommend music therapy for a wide range of clinical purposes.
Improving heart health
As we get older, getting enough exercise becomes both more difficult and more important. And dancing is an activity that goes naturally with music. In a recent study, researchers asked 30 seniors to walk on a treadmill until they were exhausted. Those who listened to music during the exercise were able to walk longer than those who did not. This showed that music can motivate seniors to get on their feet and move around a little bit, which is very beneficial.
For many seniors, pain management is one of their highest health priorities. In a different study, patients undergoing spinal surgery were directed to listen to music of their choice the evening before their procedure and through the second day after. Compared to a control group, patients who listened to music reported substantially less pain. Similar results have been found in research on fibromyalgia patients.
Brain health and cognitive function
While scientists are not sure exactly why, listening to music has also been shown to improve sleep quality, alertness, memory, and mood. For elder patients suffering from memory loss, especially Alzheimer’s and dementia patients, accessing the memory of a song is easier than people’s names or past events. And among adults over 60 who had no previous musical training, research has shown that a 30-minute piano lesson with three hours of practice every week improved memory and processing speed after only three months.
For many seniors, reducing stress and anxiety drastically improves quality of life. Listening to music has been shown to keep patients’ heart rate and blood pressure in check, while decreasing levels of cortisol, all of which are markers for stress. In fact, a German study showed that patients recovering from open-heart surgery had lower levels of cortisol after listening to classical music. And in some cases, listening to music before the procedure was more helpful in getting patients to relax then prescription anti-anxiety medications.
Generally speaking, all of these health benefits lead to a better quality of life. That’s in addition to the simple joy that music can bring to people’s lives. Listening to music in a group setting, for example, adds a social aspect to the activity, which can prevent feelings of isolation. In other words, whether you’re participating in formal music therapy or simply listening to music you enjoy, the end result is a happier, more content life.