Lifestyle and exercise

Music of the heart?

The Daily Telegraph has reported that "music could be used to treat heart attack and stroke victims." The newspaper says that researchers have found that "music with faster tempos increased blood pressure and heart rate, whereas slower music reduced them." If the music stopped, blood pressure, heart rate and breathing were also reduced.

These findings come from a study that monitored heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and blood flow while participants listened to five different operatic or classical pieces.

This relatively small study has shown that the body experiences short-term physiological changes in response to classical music. However, all of the participants tested were young, healthy adults. While these results are interesting, they may not apply to people of different ages or who are less healthy. In particular, this study cannot tell us whether listening to music would have the same physiological effect, or any long-term beneficial effects, in people with heart conditions or vascular problems, such as stroke.

Where did the story come from?

Dr Luciano Bernardi and colleagues from Pavia University and the University of Milan-Bicocca in Italy, and the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford carried out this research. The study was funded by the Signe and Ane Gyllenberg Foundation in Finland and published in the peer-reviewed medical journal Circulation.

What kind of scientific study was this?

This was an experimental study in humans, which looked at the effects of music on short-term physiological measures, such as breathing and heart rate.

The authors of this study say that music is increasingly being used to treat various conditions, and that musical treatments could be standardised if all individuals respond to music in the same way. The researchers were particularly interested to find out if physiological responses were dependent on whether or not a person had musical training.

The researchers enrolled 24 healthy white adults with an average age 25. Twelve of the participants had been choristers for at least three years and 12 had no previous music training.

The study was designed to explore whether variable musical emphasis, such as crescendo (getting louder) or a more stable emphasis, could produce the same heart and breathing changes in the two groups or whether responses were influenced by musical training.

Participants were asked to lie down, close their eyes and use headphones to listen to a playlist of five different passages of music and one two-minute silent track in random order. The researchers monitored the participants’ heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, blood flow in the skin and blood flow to the brain before and during six different listening pieces:

  • Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (a well-known orchestral piece).
  • 'Nessun dorma' from Puccini’s Turandot (an emotional and lyrical operatic aria).
  • Cantata BWV 169a: 'Gott soll allein mein Herze haben' by Bach (reported to be a more “intellectual” piece of solo singing ).
  • Two arias by Verdi with rhythmic phrases: 'Va pensiero' from Nabucco and the drinking song 'Libiam Ne'ieti Calici' from La Traviata .

After listening to the music, the participants’ were asked if they experienced any strong emotional responses to each piece (for example, chills), and rated the pleasantness of each piece, how new it was to them and the intensity of their emotion on a scale from one (very low) to five (very high). The researchers looked at whether participants’ physiological measurements (blood pressure, heart rate etc) responded differently to the different pieces of music.

What were the results of the study?

The participants reported no strong preferences for any of the pieces played. Most people reported that their listening session made them experience “no particular emotions” or made them “calm”, with none reporting that the music gave them “chills” or other strong responses.

The researchers found that:

  • Both orchestral and vocal crescendos in the music led to changes in cardiovascular and breathing patterns, in particular constriction (narrowing) of blood vessels in the skin and increases in blood pressure and heart rate.
  • Music with a uniform tempo led to dilation (widening) of the blood vessels in the skin and reduction in blood pressure.
  • Silence led to relaxation, illustrated by a reduction in heart rate and other physiological variables.
  • Each different piece of music produced its own effect on physiological measures, with 'Nessun dorma' showing the most consistent effects.

Overall, similar responses were seen in both the choristers and the group with no musical experience.

What interpretations did the researchers draw from these results?

The researchers concluded that people show consistent physiological responses to music, and these changes might contribute to emotions experienced when listening to music.

They say their findings “have considerable implications for the use of music as a therapeutic tool, because all subjects, whether musically trained or not, responded in a similar manner”.

What does the NHS Knowledge Service make of this study?

This relatively small study has found that the body experiences short-term physiological changes in response to different music.

While media coverage of this study has generally focused on music’s potential for treating heart or vascular conditions such as stroke, the study only tested responses in young, healthy adults. Since the results of this study may not apply to people of different ages or who are less healthy, it cannot confirm whether listening to music would have the same effect in, or be beneficial to, older people with cardiovascular conditions.

This study was interested in looking only at short-term physiological effects of music and did not investigate whether these changes can lead to long-term improvements in health. Overall, the study provides some insight into the types of music that might affect heart and breathing rates, but the practical use of music as therapy for heart conditions will need to be tested in randomised trials.

NHS Attribution