Listening to music may boost exercise ability, ease stress and anxiety, and enhance recovery from strokes.
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Whether you prefer Stravinsky's symphonies or the Beatles' ballads, you probably listen mostly because you simply like how they sound. You might not realize that music engages not only your auditory system but many other parts of your brain as well, including areas responsible for movement, language, attention, memory, and emotion.
"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. This global activation happens whether you listen to music, play an instrument, or sing — even informally in the car or the shower, he says. And it helps to explain how and why music therapy works (see "Singing — and striding — stroke survivors").
Singing — and striding — stroke survivors
Music therapy can help stroke survivors recover their ability to speak and move. The reason lies in music's widespread effects on the brain, which cultivate a process known as entrainment.
Entrainment refers to the simultaneous activation of neurons from different parts of the brain. "For example, when you hear a steady rhythm, it activates your auditory system but also automatically engages your motor system," explains music therapist Brian Harris of Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital.
After certain types of strokes, people can't move the muscles in their tongue or lips (dysarthria) and therefore aren't able to speak clearly. But asking them to "sing" a familiar song using simple syllables (such as "la" or "fa") instead of words helps entrain their motor or muscle-activating nerves, which helps them recover their speech.
The technique works for all types of movement. "When people entrain, it makes the neurological process more efficient because everything fires at the same time," says Harris. When stroke survivors practice walking to music, it helps steady their gait and improves the speed, symmetry, and length of each stride.
Music can also alter your brain chemistry, and these changes may produce cardiovascular benefits, as evidenced by a number of different studies. For example, 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 (and possibly sleep better).
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 the rate of your heartbeat and respiration. 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.
What resonates for you?
But preference matters: research suggests that patient-selected music shows more beneficial effects than music chosen by someone else, which makes sense. 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 (done 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 than when they listened to rock, and vice versa. Someone who loves opera might find a soaring aria immensely calming. "But quite frankly, if you don't care for opera, it could have the opposite effect!" says Harris.
There's no downside to using music either to relax or to invigorate your exercise if you keep the decibel level in a safe range. You might even consider using your heart health as an excuse to splurge on a new sound system.