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The neurochemistry of music

June 18, 201518 June 2015

Arts, health, and well-being

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Reviewing 400 research reports related to the neurochemistry of music, this article indicates that there is “promising, yet preliminary” evidence that music has positive effects on “(i) reward, motivation, and pleasure; (ii) stress and arousal; (iii) immunity; and (iv) social affiliation”.

For individuals, “music is among those lifestyle choices that may reduce stress, protect against disease, and manage pain.” “Music initiates brainstem responses that, in turn, regulate heart rate, pulse, blood pressure, body temperature, skin conductance, and muscle tension”. In clinical settings, music is used “to promote health and well-being …, such as for pain management, relaxation, psychotherapy, and personal growth”.

The researchers also indicate that there is research to support the finding that “music plays an important role in creating social bonds”. However, the researchers caution that studies have not isolated the effects of music itself from the potential effects of the social nature of music making and attendance. As they note, “it may turn out that the mechanism of action for music is not due to the music itself, but to embedded or ancillary factors, such as distraction, mood induction, locus of control, and perceptual-cognitive stimulation. If this is the case, music may be effective, but not uniquely so – other interventions (crossword puzzles, films, plays) may show equivalent effects if matched for embedded factors.”

The researchers raise a number of important questions for future research, including:

  • “Are some people more likely to experience positive effects of music than others?” If so, which people benefit more?
  • “What are the differential effects, if any, of playing vs listening to music?”
  • “What is the optimal role for skilled music therapists in the administration of musical interventions for health outcomes?”

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