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The power of music: how it can benefit health

I think music in itself is healing,” American musician Billy Joel once said. “It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” Most of us would wholeheartedly agree with this statement, and it is this universal bond with music that has led researchers across the globe to investigate its therapeutic potential.

“We have a such a deep connection to music because it is ‘hardwired’ in our brains and bodies,” said Barbara Else.

We can all think of at least one song that, when we hear it, triggers an emotional response. It might be a song that accompanied the first dance at your wedding, for example, or a song that reminds you of a difficult break-up or the loss of a loved one.

“We have a such a deep connection to music because it is ‘hardwired’ in our brains and bodies,” Barbara Else, senior advisor of policy and research at the American Music Therapy Association told Medical News Today. “The elements of music – rhythm, melody, etc. – are echoed in our physiology, functioning and being.”

Given the deep connection we have with music, it is perhaps unsurprising that numerous studies have shown it can benefit our mental health. A 2011 study by researchers from McGill University in Canada found that listening to music increases the amount of dopamine produced in the brain – a mood-enhancing chemical, making it a feasible treatment for depression.

And earlier this year, MNT reported on a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry that suggested listening to hip-hop music – particularly that from Kendrick Lamar – may help individuals to understand mental health disorders.

But increasingly, researchers are finding that the health benefits of music may go beyond mental health, and as a result, some health experts are calling for music therapy to be more widely incorporated into health care settings.

In this Spotlight, we take a closer look at some of the potential health benefits of music and look at whether, for some conditions, music could be used to improve – or even replace – current treatment strategies.

Bob Marley once sang: “One good thing about music, when it hits you feel no pain.” According to some studies, this statement may ring true.

Earlier this year, MNT reported on a study led by Brunel University in the UK that suggested music may reduce pain and anxiety for patients who have undergone surgery.

By analyzing 72 randomized controlled trials involving more than 7,000 patients who received surgery, researchers found those who were played music after their procedure reported feeling less pain and anxiety than those who did not listen to music, and they were also less likely to need pain medication.

This effect was even stronger for patients who got to choose the music they listened to. Talking to MNT, study leader Dr. Catharine Meads said:

“If music was a drug, it would be marketable. […] Music is a noninvasive, safe, cheap intervention that should be available to everyone undergoing surgery.”

This study is just one of many hailing music for its effects against pain. In March 2014, researchers from Denmark found music may be beneficial for patients with fibromyalgia – a disorder that causes muscle and joint pain and fatigue.

Listening to calm, relaxing, self-chosen music “reduced pain and increased functional mobility significantly” among 22 patients with fibromyalgia, according to the investigators.

But why does music appear to ease pain? While the exact mechanisms remain unclear, many researchers believe one reason is because listening to music triggers the release of opioids in the brain, the body’s natural pain relievers.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, of McGill University in Canada, and colleagues talk about this theory in a 2013 review, citing research that found people experienced less pleasure from listening to their favorite song when given Naltrexone – a drug that blocks opioid signals – suggesting music induces the release of opioids to ease pain.

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