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Mozart as Medicine: The Health Benefits of Music

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Mozart as Medicine: The Health Benefits of Music

David Binanay started playing the violin when he was five. By age 12, he performed at the world famous Carnegie Hall in New York City and, soon after, at the White House. In 2006, fresh from his graduation from Villanova University, Binanay was positioned perfectly to build his life around music. He moved into his own place and started a job at a high-end violin shop. That is when he noticed the bleeding.

Music and the mind

It was a gastrointestinal bleed. Binanay experienced one before and he called his mom to let her know what was happening. She wanted to help, but he stopped her. “Don’t worry about it. I’m going to handle it myself,” he said. This was the first time Binanay tried to handle a serious health issue on his own. When he arrived at the hospital, things began to spiral out of control. His hands started shaking and his mind began to separate from reality. “It was my first psychotic episode,” David recalls. The situation went downhill fast. After resolving the bleeding issue and leaving the hospital, Binanay’s psychosis continued. He started having delusions and became fearful of everything. “I couldn’t even walk into a grocery store because of the fear,” he says. “I didn’t really know what I was afraid of, but I feared for my life. In the span of one week I went from being normal to having a complete psychotic breakdown.” This was the peak of his psychosis, but his battle was just beginning. He struggled with schizophrenia for the next five years. His medications worked, but he had trouble sticking to them. There was one thing, however, that always seemed to help. “My dad would look at me and say, ‘Dave, go get your violin.’”

The healing power of music

Music stopped the pain. “Every time I did play, I noticed a change,” Binanay said. “I would channel my emotions through my music. The fear would turn to music. It would turn to sound.” A new medication schedule helped too. Binanay found it much easier to stick to his medication when he switched from pills to injections, which he only needed once a month. Today, after a five-year battle, Binanay has made a full recovery. He plays his violin up to 10 hours per day and runs a non-profit, Music Over Mind, that performs free music shows at hospitals for people suffering from mental illness.

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“Music has been my catalyst for recovery,” Binanay says. “It has been a 180 degree turnaround. From complete loss to total re-birth. I recently got married. I have my own place with my wife. I feel like I’m a better person than before my illness.”

David Binanay’s story raises an interesting series of questions. Can music help heal us? What role does music play in our health and happiness? Can music be a form of medicine?

The stroke victim who was healed by music

In her book The Power of Music, author Elena Mannes shares the story of a stroke patient who lost the ability to speak. After struggling to re-learn normal speech patterns, the patient makes a breakthrough by singing her words rather than saying them. This approach is known as melodic intonation therapy and it engages the right side of the brain more than normal speech. As a result, this different section of the brain can stand in as a replacement for the normal language area and be used to communicate through song. [1]

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At first glance, this story may seem like a very specific way to combine music and health, but it actually provides a good indication of the state of music therapy. There are many stories about music being used to help Parkinson’s patients move, autistic children focus and learn, and multiple sclerosis patients reduce spasms. These stories, however, have no research studies supporting them. My guess is that these are individualized results which, although true, are difficult to extrapolate to the entire population. That said, there are a handful of health benefits of music that are well-accepted and scientifically proven.

The research: music as medicine

Music can be used to relieve pain in patients. For example, surgery patients at the Cleveland Clinic that listened to recorded music saw a four times decrease in post-surgical pain. Music is also shown to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed during operations. [2, 3]

Music can be used to relieve stress and anxiety. Calming music decreases blood pressure, steadies the heart rate, and eases stress. Research shows that music can reduce stress for patients undergoing surgeries and colonoscopies, for children undergoing medical procedures, and for patients with coronary heart disease. [4-7]

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There is also preliminary evidence showing that listening to music can boost immune system function by decreasing stress hormones and increasing growth hormones. These changes prime the body to be in a better state for recovering from and resisting illnesses, but the research is weak thus far and needs further investigation. [8]

There are a range of studies that link music to happiness and pleasure in different ways. Despite the differences in the individual studies, the scientific consensus on the topic is that music does stimulate the same areas of the brain that trigger pleasure in other activities. A range of studies find that listening to pleasurable music stimulates the mesocorticolimbic system in the brain, which is the same “pleasure center” that is triggered by humor, tasty food, and even cocaine. In this way, you could say that music is like a drug. If music makes you happy, then it might be possible that it is good for your health. [9-12] These benefits sound great, but is music unique in providing these benefits? Not really. Given the current state of the research, it is not known if music is any better at healing than other alternatives. Music is not the only way to relieve pain or reduce stress. Music might work well for Person A, while meditation is better for Person B, and deep breathing or exercise help Person C. If nothing else, however, music is another tool at your disposal when you want to relieve pain, reduce stress, and promote healing.

The limitations of music therapy

You can summarize the current state of research on the connection between music and health by saying that we know music impacts our brains and bodies, but we don’t quite understand exactly why or how music does this. And because we don’t understand the details, it can be hard to use music for healing. To be honest, part of these issues could be solved if researchers performed better studies. Right now, researchers aren’t doing themselves any favors because musical research rarely follows a typical format. Here are a few common errors (and solutions): [13]

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  1. Current research doesn’t clearly differentiate if it is the act of playing music or the act of listening to music that benefits patients. For example, if a patient gets better after playing songs on a keyboard, chanting in different tones, or singing their favorite song, is he benefiting from the musical notes or from the act of playing music? Future studies should investigate if active performance or passive listening yields better results.
  2. Current research poorly categorizes the impact of different music styles. Most researchers lump music therapy into broad “stimulating” or “relaxing” categories. Future research should include more clearly defined boundaries, so we can understand which types of music can be used to heal in specific situations.
  3. Current research flip-flops on who controls the music. Sometimes the experimenter chooses the music. Sometimes the patient chooses her own music. This can complicate things because sometimes you are more likely to see music as having a positive impact simply if you select the music. Future research should be more clear about this selection process.
  4. Current research varies between individual listening, individual playing, and group playing. In many cases, patients may benefit from simply doing an activity with a group and not the music itself. Future research should investigate these environmental factors to help clarify the impact of individual vs. group music therapy.
  5. Current research, at least what I found, was universally missing a large, randomized trial. This type of study is the gold-standard of research and if music therapy interventions are to be taken seriously, then a high quality randomized study is needed.

The health benefits of music

Whether it is a pick-me-up song that brightens your mood or a life-saving violin practice like that of David Binanay, we have all felt the healing power of music. From a research standpoint, the health benefits of music are unproven. However, I say that I try to balance being a scientist with being a practitioner and, from a practical standpoint, there are very few reasons to avoid music as a way to improve your health and happiness. Music therapy is noninvasive, inexpensive, and convenient. And music is one of the lifestyle choices we can make that relieves stress and anxiety, decreases pain, and protects against disease. Stefan Koelsch, a senior research fellow in neurocognition at the University of Sussex in Brighton, summarizes the healing effects of music by saying, “I can’t say music is a pill to abolish diseases. But … So many pills have horrible side effects, both physiological and psychological. Music has no side effects, or no harmful ones.” [14, 15]

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Sources

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  1. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 179
  2. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 168
  3. The Power of Music by Elena Mannes. pg. 172
  4. Cepeda, M.S. et al. (2006) Music for pain relief.
  5. Nilsson, U. (2008) The anxiety and pain-reducing effects of music interventions: a systematic review.
  6. Dileo, C. and Bradt, J. (2007) Music therapy: applications to stress management. In Principles and Practice of Stress Management (Lehrer, P.M. et al., eds), pp. 519–544, Guilford Press
  7. Bradt, J. and Dileo, C. (2009) Music for stress and anxiety reduction in coronary heart disease patients.
  8. Gangrade, A. (2012) The effect of music on the production of neurotransmitters, hormones, cytokines, and peptides: a review.
  9. Breiter, H.C. et al. (1997) Acute effects of cocaine on human brain activity and emotion.
  10. Small, D.M. et al. (2001) Changes in brain activity related to eating chocolate: From pleasure to aversion.
  11. Mobbs, D. et al. (2003) Humor modulates the mesolimbic reward centers.
  12. Blood, A.J.and Zatorre, R.J.(2001) Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion.
  13. Many of these research limitations are covered in the guide, The Neurochemistry of Music by Chanda and Levitin.
  14. The Power of Music. pg. 193-194
  15. There is one side effect of music: opportunity cost. Listening to music that makes you happy is a great way to spend your time, but only if you’re not ignoring other things that make you happy or could improve your health and lifestyle. For example, if you listened to music that made you happy all day, but never worked out, then how big of a health benefit are you really getting? The same could be said for happiness. If you simply consumed music that you enjoyed all day long would you end up living a better life than if you had spent that time building a business you loved or mastering a skill that advanced your career? As with all uses of our time, there are tradeoffs to listening to music and it’s important to balance it with other areas of life that provide a payoff.

Thanks to David Binanay for taking time to chat with me and to Sam Sager for his help researching this article.

Featured photo credit: There is nothing more to be said or to be done tonight, so hand me over my violin and let us try to forget for half an hour the miserable weather and the still more miserable ways of our fellowmen./Flood G. via flickr.com

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James Clear

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits. He shares self-improvement tips based on proven scientific research.

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Last Updated on November 22, 2021

Thanksgiving: It’s About The Simple Things

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Thanksgiving: It’s About The Simple Things

Thanksgiving, a day of pure gluttony, football, and possible uncomfortable situations with family members that you may or may not like. Oh, yeah, and the whole “know and reflect on what it is to be thankful and grateful.”

During the holiday season many people forget what this time of year is bout and are too worried about getting the “early-bird” deals on Black Friday and making sure that they have the perfect gifts for their loved ones. I am sort of a “Grinch” when it comes to the holiday season, mostly because of that mentality by many of the poeple around me.

But instead of being grinch-like this holiday season, I decided to simplify things and get back to what this time of year is actually is about; being thankful for what I have and what I can give.

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Simplify

I’m not a “minimalist” in any real sense, but in the last few months the talks of Patrick Rhone and others have got me to rethink my stance. Can you really have too much stuff?

Absolutely.

And with all that stuff comes the burden and the weight of it on your back.

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If you feel that the things around you are out of control, maybe it’s time to simplify and be thankful and grateful for what you have and use. Here are a few things that you can do to simplify:

  • You know those gadgets in the drawer that you said you were going to sell? Well, time to get the listing on eBay and sell them. Or, send them to a place like Gazelle. Even if they are old and won’t get money, you can at least recycle them.
  • Get rid of things you don’t need. Like old books, clothes, tools, etc. Have something that’s been laying around forever with no use? Donate it to a charity or church. If you aren’t using it, someone else could be.
  • Find your productivity tools and stick with them. Use tools and gadgets that serve multiple purposes so you can simplify your tool set.

Be Mindful

You don’t have to be a master Buddhist or meditator to be mindful (although, it can definitely help). Being mindful comes down to being cognizant of the present and not keeping yourself in the past or future. It’s about living in the moment and being aware of yourself and everything around you. It’s just being.

Without getting too “California” on you, it is super important to be mindful during the holiday rush. Rather than worrying about the things that you forgot at your house on the way to relatives or thinking about the next stop in your endless holiday travels, just breath and think about what you are currently doing.

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Spend the time with your family and friends and don’t crush the moment. Try not to concentrate so hard on getting the perfect photo of the “awesome moment” of the day and actually miss the awesome moment.

Being mindful over the holidays will help you be with your families, friends, and yourself allowing you to enjoy your time.

Reflect

As the year is coming to a close (yes, it really is that close!) it’s a great time to start reflecting on what you have accomplished and what you haven’t. Within the next few weeks we will have a more throrough reflection article here at Lifehack.org, but reflecting every now and then over your holiday break is a great way to see where you have been doing well in your life and where you need to improve.

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Reflection shouldn’t be used to “get down” on yourself. Reflection should be used to take an honset inventory of what you have accomplished, how you handeled situations, and what you can do better. If you journal everyday (a daily form of reflection) it may be a good time to start going over some of the things that you have written and start to put together a year’s end journal entry. I mean, how else will you write your autobiography?

But, seriously, reflecting on yourself makes you aware of your successes and faults and helps you plan and make goals for the coming year. It makes you a better person.

So, while you are stuffing your face with bird, stuffing, and mashed taters’, remember that the holidays are much more than the superficial things. Use this holiday to become a better person.

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Featured photo credit: Libby Penner via unsplash.com

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