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Mozart as Medicine: The Health Benefits of Music

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

  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 March 24, 2021

8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

8 Smart Home Gadgets You Need in Your House

We’ve all done it. We’ve gone out and bought useless gadgets that we don’t really need, just because they seemed really cool at the time. Then, we are stuck with a bunch of junk, and end up tossing it or trying to sell it on Ebay.

On the other hand, there are some pretty awesome tech inventions that are actually useful. For instance, many of the latest home gadgets do some of your work for you, from adjusting the home thermostat to locking your front door. And, if used as designed, these tools should really help to make your life a lot easier—and that’s not just a claim from some infomercial trying to sell you yet another useless gadget.

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Take a look at some of the most popular “smart gadgets” on the market:

1. Smart Door Locks

A smart lock lets you lock and unlock your doors by using your smartphone, a special key fob, or biometrics. These locks are keyless, and much more difficult for intruders to break into, making your home a lot safer. You can even use a special app to let people into your home if you are not there to greet them.

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2. Smart Kitchen Tools

Wouldn’t you just love to have a pot of coffee waiting for you when you get home from work? What about a “smart pan” that tells you exactly when you need to flip that omelet? From meat thermometers to kitchen scales, you’ll find a variety of “smart” gadgets designed to make culinary geeks salivate.

3. Mini Home Speaker Play:1

If you love big sound, but hate how much space big speakers take up, and if you want a stereo system that is no bigger than your fist, check out the Play:1 mini speaker. All you have to do is plug it in, connect, and then you can stream without worrying about any interruptions or interface. You can even add onto it, and have different music playing in different rooms.

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4. Wi-Fi Security Cameras

These are the latest in home security, and they connect to the Wi-Fi in your home. You can use your mobile devices to monitor what is going on in your home at all times, no matter where you are. Options include motion sensors, two-way audio, and different recording options.

5. Nest Thermostat

This is a thermostat that lives with you. It can sense seasonal changes, temperature changes, etc., and it will adjust itself automatically. You will never have to fiddle with a thermostat dial or keypad again, because this one basically does all of the work for you. It can also help you to save as much as 12% on heating bills, and 15% on cooling bills.

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6. Smart Lighting

Control your home lighting from your remote device. This is great if you are out and want to make sure that there are some lights on. It is designed to be energy efficient, so it will pay for itself over time because you won’t have to spend so much on your monthly energy bills.

7. Google Chromecast Ultra

Whether you love movies, television shows, music, etc., you can stream it all using Google Chromecast Ultra. Stream all of the entertainment you love in up to 4K UHD and HDR, for just $69 monthly.

8. Canary

This home security system will automatically contact emergency services when they are needed. This system offers both video and audio surveillance, so there will be evidence if there are any break-ins on your property. You can also use it to check up on what’s happening at home when you are not there, including to make sure the kids are doing their homework.

Featured photo credit: Karolina via kaboompics.com

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