Studies show that music not only boosts one’s mood, but also helps overall wellness–and may improve heart health. “There is no other stimulus on earth that simultaneously engages our brains as widely as music does,” says Brian Harris, certified neurologic music therapist at Harvard-affiliated Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. In addition to engaging the auditory system, music also activates many other parts of the brain, including those responsible for movement, language, attention, memory, and emotion. Harris notes that this global activation happens when listening to music, playing an instrument, or even informally singing in the car or shower.
Music can also alter brain chemistry, and these changes may produce cardiovascular benefits, as evidenced by a number of different studies. Studies have found that listening to music may:
- Enable people to exercise longer during cardiac stress testing done on a treadmill or stationary bike
- Improve blood vessel function by relaxing arteries
- Help heart rate and blood pressure levels to return to baseline more quickly after physical exertion
- Ease anxiety in heart attack survivors
- Help people recovering from heart surgery to feel less pain and anxiety.
Like other pleasurable sensations, listening to or creating music triggers the release of dopamine, a brain chemical that makes people feel engaged and motivated. As Harris points out, “An exercise class without music is unimaginable.” Sound processing begins in the brainstem, which also controls heartbeat and respiration rates. This connection could explain why relaxing music may lower heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure — and also seems to ease pain, stress, and anxiety.
However, research suggests that patient-selected music demonstrates more beneficial effects than music chosen by someone else. According to the American Music Therapy Association, music “provokes responses due to the familiarity, predictability, and feelings of security associated with it.”
In the cardiac stress test study conducted at a Texas University, most of the participants were Hispanic, so the researchers chose up-tempo, Latin-inspired music. In the artery relaxation study, which tested both classical and rock music, improvements were greater when classical aficionados listened to classical music versus when they listened to rock, and vice versa. Someone who loves opera may find a soaring aria immensely calming. Yet Harris states, “Quite frankly, if you don’t care for opera, it could have the opposite effect!”
There is no downside to using music to either relax or to invigorate your exercise routine, provided the decibel level is kept in a safe range. One might even consider using heart health as an excuse to splurge on a new sound system.