September 30, 2005

Music Keeps Heartbeat Humming

Slower rhythms produce the most relaxing health effects, study finds

Tempo may be key to how well music soothes the savage breast -- meaning an Irish jig and a Debussy nocturne may not be created equal when it comes to improving well-being.

New research shows that slow music produces a relaxing effect, while musical pauses further modulate heart rhythms and circulation patterns in a beneficial way. The effects were most striking for those people who have musical training.

"Calm music with a slow tempo can entrain respiration to produce slower breathing," said study senior author Dr. Peter Sleight, of the department of cardiovascular medicine at the University of Oxford in England. "This is the first study to show that breathing can be easily entrained (and subconsciously) using music."

Slower breathing has been linked to lower blood pressure and may help the lungs work more efficiently.

For their new research, Sleight and his colleagues investigated physiologic responses to six different types of music in 12 musicians and 12 non-musicians.

The music selections consisted of raga (Indian classical music), Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (slow classical), rap (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Vivaldi (fast classical), techno, and Anton Webern (slow, dodecaphonic music).

Each participant listened to different sequences of music for two minutes at a stretch, followed by the same selection for four minutes. The sequences included a two-minute pause.

Music with faster tempos and simpler rhythmic structures resulted in increased ventilation, blood pressure and heart rate, the researchers found. When the music was paused, heart rate, blood pressure and ventilation decreased, sometimes even below the starting rate.

Slower music caused declines in heart rate, with the largest decline seen with raga music.

The pause effect occurred regardless of the type of music but was stronger among musicians, who are already trained to measure their breathing with the music.

Overall, a person's musical preference was less important than the music's pace, the researchers said.

The findings, which are published in Heart, a British Medical Journal publication, do not surprise experts in the field.

"Stress has its impact on cardiovascular disease. Music can not only reduce stress, but it can enhance the therapy that one gets," said Dr. Vincent Marchello, vice president of medical affairs for Metropolitan Jewish Health System and assistant professor of clinical medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, both in New York City.

Earlier research has shown that reading rhythmic poetry like Homer's The Odyssey aloud can synchronize the body's heart and respiration rates. Similar positive effects have been linked to the Catholic rosary prayer and the yoga mantra. Indeed, Sleight's team has published similar effects from yoga and repetitive prayer.

Music, also, has been shown to have beneficial properties including reducing stress, improving athletic performance and enhancing motor function in people with neurological impairments.

Up until now, however, there had been no comprehensive comparisons of how different types of music and the way in which they are presented might affect autonomic, cardiovascular and respiratory functioning.

The authors also speculated that different types of music could play a role in modulating breathing in a medical setting.

In some settings, music already plays such a role: Marchello's staff uses music to successfully calm the behavior of agitated Alzheimer's patients.

And in the post-surgery cardiac rehab ward, Marchello said, "music can improve rehab therapy sessions and can make the therapy sessions more efficient and shorten the time needed to get better."

In such cases, however, age and preference may make a difference. Elderly cardiac patients typically respond to light "muzak" and classical music, while those 55 to 60 years old seem to benefit from slightly faster music, Marchello said.

"What you're trying to do is make therapy time more efficient and maybe have longer sessions," Marchello said. "Music is one thing we do to motivate patients. It has to be what they prefer."

More information

University of Oxford

Learn more about music's effect on health at the Texas Center for Music & Medicine.