Music as Medicine

Image Credit: Sally Plank

Mozart as Medicine

We’ve been playing music since the Paleolithic Era, 40,000 years ago. Music as therapy has been documented since at least biblical times. The first music therapy experiment was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1914. As to why he placed a phonograph in the operating room as his patients lay fully conscious and awake during surgery, the surgeon explained it was “a means of calming and distracting my patients from the horror of the situation.”

Now that we have anesthesia, music is used to calm nerves before surgery. Normally, we use Valium-type drugs like midazolam (sold as Versed), but they can have a variety of side effects, including sometimes even making people more agitated. A study from Sweden sought to determine if relaxing music has a greater anxiety-reducing effect than a standard dose of midazolam. Researchers whipped out some Kenny G, and the music worked significantly better than the drug. Those listening to Mr. G had lower anxiety scores, heart rates, and blood pressures. This is perhaps the first report of any anti-anxiety therapy working not only as well as, but even better than, benzodiazepine drugs. The difference in side effects of relaxing music compared to the drug is obvious: There were none. Soft jazz causes no post-operative hangover. The researchers suggest we should start using music instead of midazolam.

Music may also reduce anxiety and pain in children undergoing minor medical and dental procedures, helping with blood draws and shots. It may even reduce the pain of spinal taps. However, Mozart is evidently powerless against the pain of circumcision.

It doesn’t take a randomized controlled trial to demonstrate that listening to music can be relaxing. Tell me something I don’t know. Well, if you take someone with a latex allergy and inject their skin with latex, they get a big, red, angry bump. But if you repeat the test after they’ve been listening to Mozart for 30 minutes, they develop a much smaller bump (as you can see in my video, Music as Medicine). That is, they have less of an allergic reaction. If you think that’s wild, get ready for this: Beethoven didn’t work. The subjects had the same reaction before and after listening to his music! Schubert, Hayden, and Brahms didn’t work either, as all failed to reduce the allergic skin response. The reducing effect on allergic responses may be specific to Mozart.

So, Mozart’s looking pretty good, but what if he could be suppressing our immune systems in general? That would not be good. The same researchers also injected a chemical that causes reactions in everyone, not just in allergic people. Mozart had no effect. It seems Mozart suppresses only the pathological allergic reaction. If that isn’t crazy enough for you, the researchers drew subjects’ blood after the music, stuck their white blood cells in a petri dish with a little latex, and measured the allergic antibody response. The white blood cells from those exposed to Mozart had less of an allergic response even outside the body compared to cells taken from Beethoven blood. How cool is that?

Music may even impact our metabolism. This inquiry started with a 2012 study published in the journal Pediatrics, which found the resting energy expenditure (the number of calories burned when just lying around) was lower in preterm infants when researchers piped in Mozart. This may explain why infants exposed to music put on weight faster, so much so they are able to go home earlier.

Gaining weight faster is great for premature babies, but not necessarily for adults. Could listening to music slow our metabolism and contribute to weight gain? Well, one study found no effect on adults. But the researchers used Bach, not Mozart. Bach doesn’t cause a drop in energy expenditure in babies either. These data suggest there may be “more a ‘Mozart effect’ than a universal ‘music effect’.”

What if we just listen to music of our choice? Does that affect our metabolism? We didn’t know… until now. It turns out that listening to music appears to actually increase our metabolic rate, such that we burn an average of 27.6 more calories a day just lying in bed. That’s only like six M&M’s worth, though, so it’s better to use music to get up and start dancing or exercising. Music can not only improve exercise enjoyment but also performance—a way to improve athletic performance that’s legal.

Male bodybuilders may be less enthused by music’s effects. After listening to music for just 30 minutes, testosterone levels drop 14% in young men and go up 21% in young women. Do all kinds of music have this effect or just some types? Thirty minutes of silence had no effect on testosterone levels at all, while a half-hour of Mozart, jazz, pop, or Gregorian chants (no relation :) all suppressed testosterone. What about a half-hour of people’s personal favorites? Testosterone levels were cut in half! Testosterone decreased in males under all music conditions, whereas testosterone increased in females. What is going on? Well, in men, testosterone is related to libido, dominance, and aggressiveness, whereas women get a bigger boost in testosterone from cuddling than from sex. Maybe we evolved using music as a way to ensure we all got along, like a melodious cold shower to keep everyone chill.

Is that crazy or what? I’m fascinated by the whole topic. For more, see Music for Anxiety: Mozart vs. Metal

Sounds are not the only sensory-stimulators that can have an effect on us—so can scents! See:

Exposure to industrial pollutants may also affect both allergic diseases and testosterone levels:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations:


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

15 responses to “Mozart as Medicine

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  1. Yes, it was Franz Joseph Haydn, not Tom Hayden, whose music was tried out. Don’t know if Tom ever did music.
    But clearly, there are cultural causes operating here as well: for further research, dig up some anthropologists’ studies of preferences of different European composers among African and other people newly exposed to them.
    And farther afield, there’s an old Australian account of aboriginal exposure to Shakespear’s Macbeth, with unique cultural reinterpretations of the tale.
    So while genetics plays a role, culture has been with us since at least we became Homo, and genetic effects of cultural conditions operate.

  2. As a teacher, (now retired) I used Mozart daily in my classroom to set a calm environment. I read somewhere that Mozart’s music primarily used a beat that was 60 bats per minute. Is that true? I also had some Mozart selections during surgery.

    1. To amplify pjk’s reply, Beethoven was the first European composer able to use that new device, the metronome, for which he wrote a little ditty “Thank you so much Mr Maelzel, thank you thank you…” to the ticking of the device. Maelzel may have got the idea from a Berber Muslim living in Andalusia, Spain, a thousand years before, who also may have given da Vinci the notion of a flying machine.

  3. Perhaps William Congreve had just this (testosterone) phenomenon in mind, when, in 1697, he wrote “Musick has charms to soothe a savage breast.” Today, we might doubt his spelling, but he seems to have had some insight into hormonal responses to melodious sound.

  4. Wonder what is suggested when you do not go out of your way to listen to music.

    I have an extensive library of old Napster downloads of varied music including some wonderful Chinese music and western music done by a Chinese orchestra and even some Tibetan monks chants. I’ve got older New Age music, some Country and Western, some great ’30s music and tons of classical (Ride of the Valkyries is a favorite.) I even have a reading of the Gettysburg address and the national anthems of some European countries.

    I didn’t care much for the music that was popular at the time so have little or none of that.

    I occasionally (maybe 3 times a year) will populate a playlist and listen to it, but even though I could have that on every day for hours at a time, I just am not motivated to do it.

    It could be that I’m not in need of any healing powers the music contains. My mind is constantly active and even when I’m just sitting at the computer, I am probably reading some new research.

    Not only that, when I’m traveling I do not turn on the radio and because of that I am thinking but not to the point where I don’t notice an unusual sound from the car or the difference in the road noise when crossing a county line and getting a different paving surface.

    I personally owe a debt to Napster for widening my horizons. I didn’t harm any musicians to my knowledge… or if I did, it was only pennies worth… because I didn’t download the hits of the day.

    Simply having open access to music from around the world like Africa and Jamaica that I would never have been exposed to otherwise means that I know who The Mighty Sparrow or Angelique Kidjo is.

    Maybe I need to revisit my music more often in order to chill… but I so enjoy how I go about things.

    1. Music is too available nowadays. Before recorded music, non- musicians used to have to travel long distances to hear music. Concert music was the only music.

    2. My experience is that as one gets older…some interest in music can decline. Younger people can be glued to headsets almost 24/7….and seem to identify more readily with their music (political/cultural?)…where as I get older I’m less able to get “into” music as much.

      Have been buying older “new age” CDs and exploring some of that.

      I’ve gotten more used to wanting silence when driving…except now and then….getting into some old Brubeck….etc.

      The brain changes as we get older…could be we can’t handle as much “distraction” as we could earlier? Could be we’ve already formed our “cultural awareness” and don’t need to re-form it?

      1. I too, as I’ve aged, listen to MUCH less music.

        From age 10-35 I regularly and frequently and extensively listened to lots of music, much of it classical. Though I still like classical music, I now hardly ever listen to any music. I’ve wondered about this, so your (RogerD) experience being similar is interesting, and makes me wonder if this is just us or if this is a more widespread experience, and if the latter, it would be interesting to study scientifically to understand what’s going on.

  5. The participants in these studies are probably not people who have developed an appreciation of complex music in general. Mozart was a genius, and his music has a lyrical quality to it that no other composer has since matched. Mozart was primarily an opera composer, and he transposed the human voice to his instrumental music, which can be understood as a “mini-opera,” in a way. This lyrical quality is one reason people love Mozart instantly, while it may take longer to develop an appreciation for the music of composers of a different kind, like Schubert, Schumann or Beethoven. But I’d dare say that listening to music that moves you is what matters. The transcendental nature of music has a power that is not limited to one single composer or artist but may take repeated exposures to appreciate. It’s absurd to claim that “Beethoven didn’t work.” It may be interesting to see how the body reacts to the second movement of Schubert’s Quintet in C, the slow movement of Beethoven’s Emperor piano concerto, or the Brahms Clarinet Quintet, but there are certain kinds of mysteries in life that are best left unexplained…

    1. Lots of interesting issues you raise. Hopefully they will be addressed as this area of research progresses.

      Of course, it’s not “absurd to claim that ‘Beethoven didn’t work.'” They are simply reporting what they found. We really won’t know what going on here until more research is done, maybe a lot more work . . .

  6. Many years ago, I had a dentist who used music. Pt. put on earphones, controlled the music selection, and volume. This made use of anesthetic unnecessary.
    I have endured countless hours in various dentist’s chairs, those with traditional pain relief methods as well as this “ahead of his time” gentleman.(I believe his name was Gilliland?) and this music approach actually did work.

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