Melodies to Mend By

Opinions vary as to why music has such a profound effect on humans. At least some of its therapeutic power comes from its ability to trigger the release of endorphins, the powerful opiate-like chemicals produced in the brain that induce euphoria and relieve pain. In fact, researchers have discovered that if they administer drugs that block the production of endorphins, they significantly blunt a person’s enjoyment of music, according to David S. Sobel, M.D., director of patient education and health promotion for Kaiser Permanente Northern California, a health maintenance organization.

Music triggers other positive changes, too. It reduces levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline. It has a calming effect on the limbic system, a group of structures within the brain that regulates emotions. And it boosts levels of immunoglobulin A (IgA), the body’s first line of defense against colds and other infections.

Of course, music is no cure-all. But it can do some very remarkable things for the body and mind. It has been shown to help heart attack and surgical recovery, chronic-pain management, stroke rehabilitation, Alzheimer’s care, and alleviation of depression.

In one study of people who had suffered heart attacks, eighty people-all newly admitted to hospital coronary care units­were divided into three groups. One group listened to a 20-minute audiotape of calming music; another practiced breathing and meditation to invoke a sense of calm, called the relaxation response; and the third received only standard care. The patients in the music and relaxation response groups showed significant reductions in heart rate and levels of stress hormones, compared with the patients in the standard care group. But the folks who listened to music were the least stressed, suggesting that music is even more relaxing than meditation.

Another study showed the effectiveness of using music for management of chronic pain. At the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Nursing in Omaha, Lani Zimmerman, R.N., Ph.D., associate professor of nursing, gave 40 people with chronic pain a collection of ten music audiotapes. She asked each patient to select one tape that was most relaxing. The patients reported significantly less pain while listening to their tapes. Other studies have shown that music can reduce a hospital patient’s need for pain medication by as much as 30 percent.

Music has also been proven beneficial in management of depression. In one study, people with serious depression were separated into three groups. One group received weekly visits from music therapists, who played music and offered instruction in stress management techniques. Another group received weekly phone calls from music therapists and taped music to play independently. The third group received no treatment. All of the patients who listened to music-whether with a therapist or alone-showed significant improvement in mood, compared with the patients who didn’t listen to music.

Music to your Ears

Studies of music therapy have shown that, in general, soothing, slow-tempo tunes work best for relaxation, stress management, and recovery from illness. But if you’re looking to boost your energy level and productivity, or if you want a sound­track for your workout, choose music that has an upbeat tempo but isn’t bombastic.

Most people get the greatest benefit from music that they’ve selected on their own­no matter what it is, notes music therapist Clare O’Callaghan of the University of Melbourne in Australia. That’s because people choose what they like, which helps motivate them and gives them a sense of personal empowerment. If you’d like to give a family member or friend a calming audiotape or CD but you don’t know the person’s tastes, stick with songs that were popular when he was young. This is the time of life when a person’s musical preferences are formed.

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