Music can certainly affect our mood, but can it affect our health? The answer to this question could be yes, according to researchers who have discovered that repeated musical phrases can affect the heart rate, raising the possibility that it could be used as a treatment for heart conditions.

A woman on a sofa listening to music on headphones.Share on Pinterest
Researchers have demonstrated that certain repeated musical phrases could affect the heart rate.

Peter Sleight, Professor Emeritus of Cardiovascular Medicine at the University of Oxford in the UK, has presented the findings of over 20 years of research at the British Cardiology Society Conference in Manchester.

“Music is unique to Man and its use to influence mood goes back to pre-history,” he says. “Music is now widely used commercially (but uncritically) from medical applications to raising cattle. Rather little has been published in regular medical journals.”

When studying the stress of mental arithmetic among a group of young medical students, Prof. Sleight and colleagues were surprised to find that the Latin Ave Maria prayer had a 10-second phrase that coincided with Mayer waves – arterial pressure oscillations that some experts believe are a measure of sympathetic activity.

The prayer was being used in the study as a non-stressful verbal control, reducing the heart rate. The researchers then discovered that when recited in other languages such as Italian, the prayer did not have the same calming effect. In these translations, the rhythms all exceeded 10 seconds.

Over the 20 years following this discovery, the researchers discovered that this 10-second rhythm also appeared in other musical compositions – particularly in the works of the composer Verdi.

To test the effects of different compositions, the researchers presented six different styles of music in a random order to 12 musically untrained medical students and to 12 conservatoire musicians. While playing the participants the different styles of music through headphones, the researchers analyzed their cardiovascular response, including their pulse and blood pressure.

The researchers discovered that the cardiovascular responses to the six different styles were similar between the participants despite differences in individual music preferences, although participants with musical training had stronger responses.

As the first style of music presented in a sequence to someone is considered to be more influential, the researchers presented the styles of music to each participant in a random order, along with a randomly inserted period of silence.

Participants had similar responses to both calming music such as Indian rajas and exciting music such as jazz or fast classical music. These findings suggest that a therapeutic use of music to calm people could be achieved without having to cater the music utilized to each individual.

“Unfortunately, for commercial reasons, the use of music to calm people in therapeutic environments has happened without any critical controlled studies of its effectiveness,” says Prof. Sleight.

“This commercial bandwagon has held back proper evaluation, but more importantly, has led to new skepticism about whether there is any real therapeutic role for music therapy. We desperately need some new properly controlled studies to evaluate the potential uses of music therapy.”

Prof. Jeremy Pearson, associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation (BHF) in the UK, believes that the findings are promising, although more work is needed before they can have a practical impact.

“We know that stress can play a role in cardiovascular disease so the calming effect of music may have some potential as a therapy,” he says. “However, as Prof. Sleight points out, more robust evidence is needed before we see cardiologists prescribing a dose of Taylor Swift or 30 minutes of Vivaldi a day.”

Previously, Medical News Today reported on research indicating that cats under general anesthetic can process the sound of music, with classical music appearing to have a particularly calming effect.