Music as Medicine

October 2, 2013 - Music provides us pleasure and contributes to education outcomes. It’s also been identified as a factor in promoting good health, and is a potential intervention tool in health care.

We know from a Hill Strategies report that pop concert attendees have a 23% greater likelihood of reporting very good or excellent health than non-attendees, even after controlling for other factors. But why is that? A review of 400 research papers provided several answers.

First, music boosts our immune system by increasing both immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays a critical role in immunity of the mucous system, and natural killer cell counts, white cells that attack virus-infected and tumor cells.

Second, music appears to have anti-inflammatory properties, by inducing positive changes in cytokines, an hormone-like protein which regulates the intensity and duration of immune responses.

Third, music acts as a buffer to stress. Relaxing music reduces our levels of cortisol and beta-endorphin, two stress hormones which, although useful in crisis situations, may act as neurotoxins and have detrimental consequences for health when they are activated over a prolonged period.

Fourth, music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, blood pressure and body temperature.

Fifth, music is often listen to or played in group context. This reinforces social support networks, which public health specialists have found to be one of the most important social determinant of health.

Music in an Istambul hospitalThese effects of music have garnered attention of healthcare practitioners, who are beginning to exploit the therapeutic potential of music. For example, music was shown to be more effective than Valium to reduce anxiety prior to a surgery. Music also reduces anxiety levels and need for sedative drugs in intensive care unit patients. Similarly, listening to relaxing music after a surgery reduces postoperative pain, lowers the need for opiate drugs to cope with the pain and accelerates recovery.

Music also helps to reduce age-related illnesses and cognitive declines. Among many things, it energizes people suffering from dementia and it supports general wellbeing of elder people.

Music is affordable, and has none of the undesirable side effects that many pharmaceutical products have. (Or, if music does create an addiction, it’s a pleasant and harmless one.) That’s why so many studies conclude that music as a therapeutic intervention should be considered, along with traditional therapeutic interventions, in order to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of health care.

Don’t wait to be sick. Listen to music now, go to a concert, sing a song or play your favourite musical instrument. It’s good for you, and for your health.

To learn more about music and health, visit the Arts Health Network Canada.

Prepared by Frédéric Julien, for Orchestras Canada and CAPACOA


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