Prescription With Pleasure: The Healing Power of Music

Music has long been recognized for its therapeutic value. Aeons ago, David was summoned to play for King Saul to help chase away his majesty's "evil spirits." Today, music is known for its ability to affect mood, trigger memories and foster loving associations.

But did you know that certain forms of music — particularly classical and baroque — can help you tap into your own innate ability to heal your heart?

It's for this reason that many healthcare practitioners, cardiologists included, have begun turning to the power of music. Increasingly, they have come to believe that the melody, pitch, timing and beat of music can alter a patient's state of being by quieting his body and allowing him to enter the spiritual recesses of his mind.

Sound heavy? Maybe so. But calming, soothing music is considered one of the ultimate mind-body tools. "No question about it, music is a very powerful way to connect the mind and the body. And when they're connected, the real process of healing begins," says Stephen Sinatra, M.D., a cardiologist at the New England Heart & Longevity Center in Manchester, Conn., who is a firm believer in the mind-body connection.

"Music can be like meditation," explains Sinatra. "Some people who practice yoga, for example, will put on soft music. Massage therapists will always put on music. So whether you're doing yoga or meditating, the music in itself can have a favorable influence on your blood pressure."

That means lowering your blood pressure. In fact, research shows that music can help lower heart beat and blood pressure by reducing the stress hormones, adrenalin and cortisol.

What the Studies Show

"From a psychological evaluation, we found that classical music tends to cause comfort. This is because the sympathetic nerve is suppressed by the sound of classical music," noted Dr. Umemura Honda, in a 1998 medical journal article entitled, "Influence of music on heart rate variability and comfort — a consideration through comparison of music and noise". On the other hand, "rock music and noise tend to cause discomfort," he said.

Music also was found to reduce stress in patients undergoing cerebral angiography. In a study of 30 patients, two German doctors from Hannover Medical School's Department of Neuroradiology monitored stress hormones, blood pressure and heart beat. They found that the patients who were not exposed to music "showed rising levels of cortisol in their blood, indicating high stress levels, while cortisol in patients examined with music remained stable. Blood pressure was significantly lower listening to music." What's more, patients with a high level of fear did appear to benefit particularly from the music," the doctors noted.

Notes that Heal

Cardiologist Sinatra has also seen the power of music at work. "I used to play to music when I did cardiac catheterizations because it calmed my patients. I use music in my office all of the time to help calm my patients — and myself — and I know more physicians who are using music for this reason."

What about music's ability to lower cholesterol? While there's no data to show that music can reduce the ugly, yellow stuff that can go on to cause arterial damage and heart disease, Sinatra believes that any time you reduce stress, you reduce or eliminate your risk factors for heart disease — the leading killer of both men and women.

Interestingly, music also can offset a phenomenon known as the "white coat syndrome," whereby blood pressure rises when a patients visits his doctor, even if it's for a routine checkup.

A Higher Healing Plane

How does music cause such positive, physical changes? Most scores of classical music, for example, range between 60 beats per minute and 140 beats per minute, which stimulates the rhythm of the heart beat, thereby inducing relaxation and causing tranquility in the body, says Sinatra. What's more, he adds, "some researchers believe that such scores can take you back to the safety of the womb if you have a good experience inutero — the mother was kind to you, didn't have anger about you and this nice energy was delivered to the fetus. It's all unconscious, of course, and only a hypothesis at that."

Lastly, music doesn't involve a logical thought process, says Sinatra. When listening to music, you use your "right brain," which thinks in terms of images. "It's the creative and imaginative place in your mind that is responsible for dreams and expressive forms of art like music and painting. I'm convinced that the right brain should be exercised to truly allow healing to take place," he says.

The Pet Factor

"Music can also be a very nurturing influence for our pets," adds Sinatra. "There's some research to show petting a dog lowers blood pressure. If you put on soft music, your pets will literally wallow at your fee. They calm down. When I put music on my three dogs know I'm staying home. I know some people who play music when they leave the house because they want their pets to be entertained while they're gone."

Sinatra encourages his patients (and their pets) to listen to the following pieces of classical and baroque music to help keep their blood pressure in check, their heart disease-free and their lives long-lived:

  • Bach — Brandenberg Concerto #4, 2nd movement
  • Bach — Orchestral Suite #2, Sarabande
  • Gustav Holst — The Planets: "Venus"
  • Ravel — Mother Goose Suite, 1st movement