Pam King Sams
Penn Medicine researcher, Veena Graff, MD, explains how music can improve your health.
A very specific, up-and-coming genre called music medicine (literally) might be exactly what you need to feel better from the inside out.
What Is Wellness Music and Can It Improve Your Health?
At its simplest, “wellness music,” better known as music medicine in the research world, can be classified as any music that helps you feel better just by listening to it. In MRIs, music medicine has been shown to light up various parts of the brain, especially the limbic system. “Known as the emotional center of the brain, this area has connections to other parts of the brain that control our blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, as well as our emotional state,” said Veena Graff, MD, an assistant professor of Anesthesiology and Critical Care at Penn Medicine, who has led research on this topic.
We all know Mozart and Beethoven were geniuses. But who knew their centuries-old masterpieces would become part of a fast-growing trend called wellness music?
At its simplest, “wellness music,” better known as music medicine in the research world, can be classified as any music that helps you feel better just by listening to it, according to Lyz Cooper, the founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy. At its most complex, wellness music comprises compositions that have what Cooper calls “sonic vitamins” because they provide “nutrients” to your brain and body.
“Sonic vitamins are these little properties that go into a piece, such as low tones and a slow tempo, that have been shown to have a specific neurological effect,” she says. Those effects can make you feel calmer and more content, which, over time, can have physiological benefits (more on this shortly.)
“Sonic vitamins are these little properties that go into a piece, such as low tones and a slow tempo, that have been shown to have a specific neurological effect.”
Cooper and major trend-forecasting organizations predict that music medicine is on the brink of “going crazy.” Several music-streaming and meditation apps either house multiple songs or have plans to, and new tech platforms are reportedly launching to deliver personalized healing tunes using artificial intelligence. And all for good reason: After the year the world has had, says Cooper, there’s perhaps never been a greater need for at-home, low- or no-cost ways to relax and recover.
How Music Melts Your Mind — and Muscles
In MRIs, music medicine has been shown to light up various parts of the brain, especially the limbic system. “Known as the emotional center of the brain, this area has connections to other parts of the brain that control our blood pressure, heart rate and respiratory rate, as well as our emotional state,” says Veena Graff, MD, an assistant professor of anesthesiology and critical care at the University of Pennsylvania. In other words, when you listen to music medicine, your brain tells your body that it’s time to calm down.
All music spurs the release of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and other endorphins that can either raise or lower stress markers. “This is why certain songs make us feel nostalgic, happy, sad or angry, or help us calm down or get us energized,” explains Graff. When those stress markers are lowered, “one can enter into a deep, relaxed state that’s known as an altered state of consciousness — that lovely, warm, fuzzy place you go to when you’re just about to drift off or you’re just waking up,” says Cooper. And not only does being in that space feel good in the moment, “there are all kinds of potential health benefits associated with it, including a positive mood and a reduction in anxiety, muscle tension and pain,” she adds.
The more vitamins a track has, the more it lowers markers of stress and inflammation, says Graff, whose research has found that music medicine can be as useful as meditation in calming preoperative anxiety. Top vitamins include a tempo around 60 to 80 beats per minute, minimal percussive swings, no lyrics, and few fluctuations in sounds, she says. (So probably not your typical indie band, but classical and yoga-style music likely count.) All of these elements help your brain and body flip from fight-or-flight mode into rest-and-digest.
Some sonic vitamins, like a gradual deceleration of the song’s beat, can even have an immediate slowdown effect on the listener’s heart rate and/or blood pressure — that’s what one of Cooper’s pieces found. “It was tested at Mindlab at the University of Sussex and deemed a powerful relaxation aid. So much so that when it went on the radio, they said that it would be a good idea if people who are driving pull over,” she says.
We’re only in the beginning stages of understanding just how potent music medicine can be, both experts note. With technology like fitness trackers becoming more advanced, researchers can measure things like your heart rate and blood pressure when you’re tuning out to tunes to pinpoint which sonic vitamins elicit the best effects. From there, they can use them to induce a particular effect, like sleep, tranquility or muscle recovery after exercise.
Learn to Listen
Wellness music is a category made up of research-backed ambient, chill, classical, downtempo, and healing subgenres, says Graff. Search for those genres when perusing your go-to music-streaming platform, and experiment until you find songs that take you out of your head and into the moment.
Or try these tips if you’re looking for a specific type of soothing:
Post-Workout Recovery: “Research shows that low-frequency sounds promote a deeper level of muscular relaxation,” says Cooper. Try Paua, which she says is particularly good for relieving stress and tension after exercise.
Bedtime Wind-Down: Look for a piece of music that has long, low tones and is more “soundscape-y” than “musical” in that it doesn’t change too much, suggests Cooper. You also want to avoid songs with sharp, high-pitched sounds. A nice piece for your evening ears (composed by Cooper herself): Somnus X, which starts off with a broader soundscape and then gently fades over 10 minutes.
Instant Stress Relief: If you choose a track that incorporates breath work (in this case, words are allowed), it can doubly help your brain and body switch from into rest-and-digest. Cooper’s own balanced-breathing exercise, called BB1, can help calm anxiety in five minutes or less.
A quick tip: No matter when or why you’re listening, “it’s better to wear over-the-ear headphones, because the music is more immersive that way,” says Cooper. You’ll actually feel the sub-bass frequencies as they move through the headphones into your musculoskeletal system, she explains.
And while you can experience the benefits of music medicine almost instantly with a single dose, listen for at least five minutes a day and the benefits only grow. “Our studies have found that there appears to be a cumulative effect,” says Cooper. “The more you listen to music medicine — just like the more you meditate or practice mindfulness — the more effective the process becomes. You enable yourself to go deeper because it’s not unfamiliar.” As in: The more familiar you are with that Mozart-induced Zen, the more Zen you can be.