Paging Dr. Frischer: Music

I was born into a family that values music. I studied several instruments, and the six of us would have our own hootenannies. It was a fun and bonding experience - it made me feel happy to create music, and exposed me to a large variety of genres.

Does music affect our mental health? How about our physical health? In his song Trenchtown, Bob Marley wrote, “One good thing about music, is when it hits you, you feel no pain.” Medical research supports this claim: we know that music impacts our brains and our bodies, but we don’t quite understand exactly why or how this occurs. Because we don’t yet have a full understanding, music has not officially made it to my prescription pad.

Still, a long list of potential benefits of music have been studied:

• Music has been used to relieve pain. For example, surgery patients at the Cleveland Clinic who listened to recorded music claimed to experience four times less post-surgical pain. Music has been shown to reduce the amount of anesthesia needed during operations. Music therapy is used to treat pain in geriatric care, intensive care units, and palliative medicine. Typically classical music is used, but I suspect that any music you enjoy will be effective.

• Music is a motivator. As a marathoner, I often see my fellow runners wearing ear buds. Studies show improved physical performance and increased endurance with the use of music. There are also studies showing that slow music, following a workout, leads to a faster recovery.

• Music has been shown to effectively treat insomnia in college students. This certainly is cheaper and safer than prescription sleep medicine.

• Soft music has been shown to slow down the speed of eating, and ultimately led to less food consumed at a sitting.

• Calming music decreases blood pressure, steadies the heart rate, and eases stress and anxiety. Studies have shown that music can reduce stress for patients undergoing surgeries and colonoscopies, for children undergoing medical procedures, and for patients with coronary heart disease. Listening to slow music can alter brainwave function in a manner similar to meditation. Other therapeutic effects may include easing the symptoms of migraines and PMS.

• Music can help lift mood, much like exercise. It can lead to the release in the brain of endorphins and dopamine, which are neurotransmitters that lead to happiness. Some research has shown that classical music and other calming sounds are particularly uplifting, while heavy metal and techno music have the opposite effect.

• Background music may enhance performance on cognitive tasks. One study showed that students finished more questions in an allotted time, with more correct answers. Background music may also help to perform better in high-pressure situations. I must admit that I was skeptical seeing my own children doing homework with music playing in the background - perhaps I owe them an apology…

• Preliminary research may demonstrate that music boosts the function of our immune system by decreasing the stress hormone cortisol.

Clearly, a lot of work has been dedicated to the connection between music and health. However, these studies are not all well designed, and many do not differentiate between listening to music and playing it, or among different types of music. Research is ongoing. Do alternatives like massage, meditation, pets, or even hugging work as well? Perhaps music is effective for one person, while meditation is better for the next, and deep breathing or exercise works best for another. The health benefits of music have not been thoroughly proven, but music therapy is noninvasive, inexpensive, and convenient. From a practical standpoint, it can’t hurt. 

Dr. Alan Frischer is former chief of staff and former chief of medicine at Downey Regional Medical Center. Write to him in care of this newspaper at 8301 E. Florence Ave., Suite 100, Downey, CA 90240.