Playing and listening to music benefits both mental and physical health.

The finding came from the first-large scale review of 400 research papers in the neurochemistry of music which found that music can improve the function of the body’s immune system and reduce levels of stress.

Listening to music was also shown to be more successful than prescription drugs in decreasing a person’s anxiety before undergoing surgery.

A report from 2011 indicated that anxiety in cancer patients can be reduced by music. Prof. Levitin explained:

“We’ve found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics. But even more importantly, we were able to document the neurochemical mechanisms by which music has an effect in four domains: management of mood, stress, immunity and as an aid to social bonding.”

Results showed that music increases an antibody that plays an important role in immunity of the mucous system, known as immunoglobulin A, as well as natural killer cell counts, the cells that attack germs and bacteria invading the body.

Listening to and playing music can also lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone), according to Levitin and Dr. Mona Lisa Chanda, his postgraduate research fellow.

Previous research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry demonstrated that music therapy, when combined with standard care, is a successful treatment for depression.

The experts recommend a number of areas for later trials in the field. For example, identifying the relationship between the “love drug” oxytocin, group affiliation and music.

They suggested administering naltrexone (an opioid antagonist drug used when a person is having alcohol withdrawal) to determine whether musical pleasure is encouraged by the same chemical systems in the brain activated by other types of pleasure, such as food.

A study from 2011 suggested that thrilling music is similar to food and sex – more pleasure and anticipation means more dopamine.

The authors also urged for studies “in which patients are randomly assigned to musical intervention or a rigorously matched control condition in post-operative or chronic pain trials.” The pointed out that proper controls include TV, comedy recordings, audio books, or films.

Additionally, the scientists developed an outline for future experiments with questions including:

  • What are the different effects, if any, of playing music compared to listening to music?
  • Are the positive effects of music a result of mood induction, distraction, feelings of social bonding/support, or other factors?
  • What stimuli can be used as a foundation of comparison to match music along dimensions of arousal, attractiveness or lack thereof, engagement, and mood induction?
  • What role does “the love drug” (oxytocin) play in mediating musical experience?
  • Are certain people more likely to experience a positive impact from music than others? If so, what individual differences, such as personality traits, genetic or biological factors, aid to the success of music interventions?

The report, published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC).

Written by Sarah Glynn