Music is literally Paleo: our ancestors were making flutes back in the caveman days and presumably they'd long since been enjoying vocal music. And there’s a good reason for that. Music isn’t just fun to listen to; it also has important health benefits.
There’s actually a whole pile of evidence that music can improve quality of life and reduce stress, and that these benefits have real, measurable effects on physical health (reducing blood pressure, improving symptoms of dementia, improving survival after a heart attack). And there’s also solid evidence that music does help make workouts feel more like “fun” and less like “work.”
Music isn’t just Paleo because cavemen did it. It’s Paleo because it has demonstrably positive effects on human health (which is really the point, after all).
Music and your Brain
Actually paying attention to a piece of music engages all kinds of brain areas responsible for memory, planning, motor processing, rhythm processing, and emotional regulation. And then there’s the pleasure. Listening to music lights up the nucleus accumbens, an area of your brain that responds to reward. And it gets even better if you like the music. Think about your favorite part of a particular song – the part that gives you chills (or really fires you up, depending on the type of song). Starting a few seconds before that part, your brain starts releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine is the exact same chemical released in response to sex and food, and released in overwhelmingly huge amounts by highly processed foods and drugs like cocaine. Music is another source of dopamine - one that doesn't come with the problems of processed foods and addictive drugs.
So could music substitute for highly processed food the way nicotine gum substitutes for cigarettes? Nobody has ever done that study and it’s totally speculative. But plenty of studies have been done on the power of music to relieve stress and all the positive health benefits of that. Here's a look.
The Health Benefits of Relieving Stress with Music
Music reduces stress, and the stress reduction has measurable effects on all different health outcomes.
There’s tons of evidence that music reduces the anxiety that usually comes with all kinds of stressful situations. In patients who have to go through stressful medical procedures, like living on mechanical ventilation or having a tube pushed down their throat into their lungs (bronchoscopy), music reduces the associated stress without the need for any sedative drugs. This is a huge benefit, because the drugs have side effects, while the music doesn’t have any.
Stress reduction via music may also help increase the success rate of the stressful procedures. This review found that music helps reduce anxiety in patients before surgery, and that the anxiety reduction may actually make the surgery more likely to be successful.
And it’s not just surgery. This study found that the stress-reducing effects of music have measurable effects on blood pressure, heart rate, pain, and quality of sleep in patients with coronary heart disease. There’s also some evidence that listening to music can improve sleep quality in patients with insomnia, even if it doesn’t do anything else.
Reducing stress through music has important benefits: that’s a testament to how dangerous stress can be, but it also gives you at least one idea for fighting it.
Listening vs. Making Music
The health benefits of music are especially real if you’re making the music, and double especially real if you’re making the music in a social environment where you get to form those all-important group bonds at the same time. A couple different studies have praised the benefits of singing in a choir for cancer patients and people recovering from stroke. And it also works for people without a serious disease. This study found that singing in a choir increased measures of immune system health, and that listening to choral music decreased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
As a side note, if you find yourself interested in making music, you might be interested in muted.io, a website where I create tools and interactive references to help learn music theory concepts like scales, chords and keys. Of particular interest would be this reference to major and minor scales. - Seb
Music and Aging
Another benefit of music is the way it helps preserve mental function during aging.
Because it engages so many different areas of the brain, there’s actually quite a bit of evidence showing that music can help contribute to healthy aging. Music can help maintain memory and cognitive abilities and increase well-being. And if the music comes along with some kind of social component (like singing in a choir), it can reduce social isolation, which is a big risk factor for cognitive and physical decline.
This study started off with an overview of music and dementia (including Alzheimer’s Disease, which is a type of dementia). Other studies have shown that music can improve cognitive function and memory, and help patients with Alzheimer’s keep their linguistic abilities. It can also help with the psychological suffering caused by these diseases, like depression and anxiety. But most of those interventions depended on therapists to lead them.
The study wanted to try an intervention that anyone could do, even without a special therapist. The authors looked at 89 people with dementia and their caregivers (again, you can see the social component coming in along with the music intervention). The subjects were divided into three groups:
- Listening intervention: 10 weeks of listening to music and discussing it afterwards
- Singing intervention: 10 weeks of singing lessons and vocal exercises
- Control: 10 weeks of usual care with no music
Both of the two intervention groups “improved mood, orientation, and…memory and to a lesser extent, also attention and executive function and general cognition.” The singing group saw greater improvements in memory.
If you have any loved ones who are getting older, listening to music together is a free way to spend some quality time and maybe help them stay well for longer.
Music and Exercise
Another health benefit of music is indirect: it comes through exercise. For most (not all!) people, music makes exercise feel easier and more pleasant. A lot of people know this intuitively, but it’s actually borne out in research. Music improves mood during exercise, decreases perceived effort, and encourages people to work harder without “feeling it.” There’s a two-part review on this (Part 1, Part 2) that’s free for anyone to read if you really want to go into the details. Some highlights:
- This study made the subjects do 20 minutes of cycling. Music made the cycling feel easier.
- This study found that faster-paced music encouraged people to walk more quickly on a treadmill.
- This study found that fast-paced music encouraged people to run more quickly, and that slower-paced music helped people recover from their workouts.
- This study found that music increased enjoyment of sprint interval training.
90% of the battle with exercise is just doing it. You can run, weight train, sprint, bike, swim – all of those things have health benefits, and any one of them is a hundred times better than no exercise at all. The most important thing is to do it consistently. Most people don't consistently do things they dislike. If music helps make exercise more pleasant, then it's making exercise easier to stick with in the long haul. And that’s a huge (if indirect) health benefit all on its own.
Summing it Up
The right kind of music can be a simple but effective way to reduce stress – with measurable benefits to blood pressure, immune function, and other important aspects of health. If you keep reading about “stress management” but don’t know what you’re actually supposed to do, the answer might be as close as your headphones.
Research has also shown that music is an effective way to make exercise more pleasant, and if that helps more people actually stick with it, it counts as a huge benefit.