Modern society is teeming with stress. Given the extensive demands on both our personal and professional lives, this probably comes as no surprise. What might be surprising, however, is the discovery that ongoing stress over expanded periods of time can lead to certain irregularities in the stress response system. This, in turn, can give rise to a range of conditions including high blood pressure, stomach ulcers, and depression. Thus, it is essential for people to be able to cope with stress on a daily basis.
Enter music therapy, which has been gaining increasing popularity as an effective way to combat stress. Using music to improve health has been well-documented. But how does listening to music actually relax us? This question was the focus of a recent study led by Kenichi Itao of Juntendo University in Japan. In order to pursue this inquiry, Itao and his collaborators built on previous research and devised an experimental procedure in which participants arrived at the laboratory, took a seat, completed a short test. From there, they listened to five minutes of silence, followed by three minutes of music, followed by five more minutes of silence.
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The participants listened to to three pieces of music:
- Classical music (“Pachelbel’s Canon” by Orchestre de chambre Jean- François Paillard)
- Healing music (“Harukanaru Kage” by Yumi Nanatsutani, which is a cover of "(They Long to Be) Close to You” by The Carpenters)
- Japanese pop music (J-Pop) (“Exile Pride — Konna Sekai wo Ai suru tame” by Exile)
All the while, participants were attached to both a heart rate sensor as well as a blood flow sensor, and they had their body surface temperature measured during the protocol to assess their stress levels before, during, and after they listened to each type of music. The researchers honed in on the activity of these three physiological processes, since they can reveal information about tension, stimulation, and stress levels.
The investigators recruited 12 women ranging in age from their 20s through their 40s, and grouped them by age (20s, 30s, and 40s). The experiments were conducted three times (once for classical, healing, and J-Pop music) for each of the participants.
What did the researchers find?
Heart Rate Variability
To assess heart rate variability, participants had a heart rate sensor attached to their chests that measured the ratio of low frequency to high frequency heart rate (LF/HF). When the ratio is smaller, it indicates lower autonomic nervous system activity, and thus lower stress levels. The investigators found that, overall, participants’ LF/HF decreased significantly while listening to the music compared to before and after the music was playing. In other words, they were more relaxed when the music played. In particular, participants’ LF/HF ratio fell significantly when listening to classical and healing music when compared to the measurements after the music finished. These results demonstrate that when listening to music, and especially the classical and healing pieces, the sympathetic nervous system is suppressed while the parasympathetic nervous system is heightened, indicating relaxation.
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Blood Flow Volume
The investigators measured blood flow volume by attaching a sensor to the participants’ fingertip, and recording the levels before and during listening to music. The scientists discovered that listeners' blood flow volume tended to rise when listening to classical music, demonstrating a relaxing effect. This was in contrast to J-Pop and healing music, for which no effect was found.
Body Surface Temperature
The investigators compared the difference in body surface temperature before the music played and while listening to the music. On average, participants’ body surface temperature rose after listening to both classical and healing music, signaling greater relaxation. Of note, the increase in body surface temperature after listening to healing music was particularly pronounced.
Taken together, these results demonstrate that listening to music soothes the body, mind, and soul. As the poet and author Berthold Auerbach once stated, “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” While he likely didn’t have scientific research on his mind, the findings of this study support his sentiment.