How Music Transforms Our Health

Science—and the human experience—show there's more to music than melody. It can change the landscape of our physical and emotional health

Music is more than an art form. It can touch hearts, calm our minds, and strengthen the body.
How Music Transforms Our Health
Michelle Standlee

Angie Mack has lived and breathed music since childhood. As a girl, she sang and danced to the Neil Diamond records her father played. As a teen, she rang handbells in the church choir. Later, as a certified nursing assistant, she cared for nursing home patients, stepping in to play worship music.

Today, she mentors students in music and acting at her studio in Wisconsin.

As a breast cancer survivor, Ms. Mack has experienced firsthand music’s transformative physical and mental health benefits for her students and herself.

“My breast cancer journey has led me to conclude that I need to express myself to stay alive,” Ms. Mack told The Epoch Times. Music helped her cope with treatment.

From calming an anxious mind to regulating heart rate, studies show that music—either listening to it or playing instruments—can profoundly affect overall well-being.

How Music Can Enhance Mental Health

Many don’t understand the very real trauma that can accompany illness, Ms. Mack said. Music therapy can be beneficial in treating post-traumatic stress disorder and managing patients' symptoms.
It can also help with other mental disorders.

Aids in Expressing Feelings

Some of Ms. Mack’s students suffer from depression, anxiety, and other conditions.

“After working with children and families for over 20 years, I can tell you that our future generations need some immediate assistance in expressing their emotions,” she said, noting that suicide rates among young people are climbing.

The suicide rate among teenagers aged 15 to 19 increased by 57 percent between 2009 and 2017, from 7.5 deaths per 100,000 to 11.8, according to a recent report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Additionally, the suicide rate for young adults aged 20 to 24 rose by 63 percent between 2001 and 2021, from 11.9 deaths per 100,000 to 19.4.

“We need more safe places for a teen to communicate the rage and confusion that they might be feeling inside,” Ms. Mack said.

Listening to or creating music can be cathartic. It can serve as a powerful tool for processing and releasing pent-up feelings, providing a nonverbal outlet for emotions. Different genres and styles of music can capture a wide range of emotions, from joy and excitement to sadness and anger.

Many people find solace in music that reflects their own emotional experiences. Hearing lyrics or melodies that reflect their feelings can create a sense of connection and understanding.

Improves Autism, Anxiety, Depression

Lori Ann Locke, a board-certified music therapist, echoed the view that music profoundly affects health and well-being. Growing up with a neighbor who had special needs taught Ms. Locke to relate to people of different abilities. She began playing the piano at age 7, deciding then to become a music teacher.

Years later, Ms. Locke became a music therapist, working with Alzheimer's and neurological disorder patients, some with dual diagnoses such as autism and anxiety.

“When students learn an instrument while in therapy, then they have a coping skill; when they’re feeling anxious, they can play the drum or the piano even when they’re not in the therapy session.”

A 2020 meta-analysis in Psychiatry Research demonstrates that adjunct music therapy significantly improved behavioral health, including negative symptoms such as social withdrawal and apathy, depression symptoms, and quality of life in people with schizophrenia.
Patients are not the only population to benefit from music intervention. When researchers implemented music therapy and yoga for health care workers during the COVID-19 outbreak, the caregivers experienced reduced symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress, according to a 2021 article published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry.

Some research has shown that autistic children can benefit from music therapy that incorporates rhythmic movements such as clapping or marching.

Music and movement therapy can support both fine and gross motor skills and enhance communication through these motor skills, a 2013 review in Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience found.

Science Affirms Music's Physical Health Benefits

For Ms. Mack, music has provided more than an emotional boost; the melodies and rhythms provided tangible physical relief from the ravages of cancer. Research affirms her experience.

May Lower Blood Pressure

Music can help tune up heart health and regulate blood pressure, studies suggest.
A 2019 cross-over study published in Explore notes that music tuned to 432 Hz can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and respiratory rate better than music tuned to 440 Hz, the current modern standard.

May Kill Cancer Cells

Research shows that music may have effects on cancer cells. A 2016 article in Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine discussed how breast cancer cell lines respond to music.
The study found that music influenced the breast cancer cell line MDA-MB-231, the triple-negative breast cancer cell line, by reducing cell viability and inducing apoptosis, which is the process the body uses to destroy unhealthy cells.

Improves Memory

Research shows that music profoundly benefits those with neurological disorders such as dementia, reducing mood symptoms, easing agitation, and evoking personally meaningful memories, according to a 2020 Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews article.

When Ms. Locke plays music from a dementia patient's youth, it makes the patient more verbal and improves recall, she said. In her experience, singing hymns also enables patients to sing along word-for-word, demonstrating music's power to engage Alzheimer's patients by tapping into long-term memories.

Combining music with movements using both sides of the body, such as tapping both hands or moving both legs, has significant effects, Ms. Mack said. This can include playing piano, dancing, or participating in drum circles.

A 2014 study in Experimental Brain Research used functional magnetic resonance imaging to examine brain activity during bilateral movement coordination. Researchers found greater activation in certain areas of the brain, including subcortical areas—which are important for cognitive function and emotion processing—when participants coordinated movements on both sides of the body.

Helps Babies in NICU

Music therapy and other music-based interventions in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) can lead to a reduction in heart and respiratory rate, improve infants' sleep and food intake, and reduce the anxiety of mothers, according to a 2019 Medicines systematic review of randomized controlled trials on different music-based interventions and a meta-analysis on music therapy for infants.
A 2021 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the Journal of Advanced Nursing reflects the notion that music holds incredible potential to support neonatal health. Researchers stated that music therapy can be an effective non-pharmacological intervention to support preterm infants by regulating heart rate, respiratory rate, stress level, and oral feeding while reducing maternal anxiety.
Although studies show that music can support newborn well-being, a 2014 article in Advances in Neonatal Care noted some limitations of available research.
First, study sizes are generally small. Second, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that NICU sound be kept under 45 decibels to protect the newborns' hearing. However, the sound levels used in some research were much higher. Too much sound, even from music, could exceed safe levels and disrupt infants' heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, oxygenation, and sleep cycles.

Reduces Inflammation

Music can have anti-inflammatory effects, lowering inflammatory white blood cells and signaling proteins, antibodies, hormones, and immune system neurotransmitters, according to a 2021 study in Brain, Behavior, & Immunity–Health.

The study showed that when participants listened to pleasant, relaxing music, they experienced decreased levels of stress hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine.

Music is more than an art form. It can touch hearts, calm our minds, and strengthen the body.

“We are music," Ms. Locke said. "Our heartbeat is like a drum. It’s part of us."

Michelle Standlee, R.N., is a health reporter for The Epoch Times. She has a background as a registered nurse and medical writer, covering topics including mental and behavioral health, women’s and children’s health, traditional health care, complementary medicine, and alternative medicine.