Does music improve overall health and well-being?

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The positive health effects of music suggest it’s time to get your ABBA going.

What is your favorite kind of music? Do you prefer Bach to Metallica? Or maybe David Bowie is more your thing than Ed Sheeran?

When it comes to the most impactful music for health and well-being, does genre matter? Not really, according to ongoing research. There’s clear evidence that listening to the music you love can help improve your mood and reduce anxiety, for example.

Dr Matt McCrary of UNSW Medicine & Health says engaging in music – which includes listening to music, playing an instrument or singing – elicits an emotional response, which also has a physiological component.

“The specific ‘how’ and ‘why’ regarding the ability of music to elicit this emotional response is still much debated, but it seems to be related to creating an emotional connection between musicians, who create sound with emotional intent, and the listeners, who receive that emotional information,” says Dr McCrary, who is assistant lecturer at the Prince of Wales Clinical School, UNSW Sydney.

Dr. McCrary says the physiological implications of this emotional response are broad activation of many regions of the brain and activation of the autonomic nervous system – in particular, of the “fight or flight” (sympathetic) response during most musical engagements. , followed by an increase in “rest and digestion”. (parasympathetic) after the music stops.

“My working hypothesis is that repeatedly engaging with music and eliciting these patterns of autonomic nervous system activation increases our ability to respond effectively to stress, which in turn improves our health and well-being. in general.”

And going back to the question of whether you prefer contemporary pop, heavy metal or classical music, there is currently no evidence that any particular genre is better than another, as long as it’s the music you love. .

“The music that has the greatest impact on health and well-being seems to be the music you love the most because playing it and listening to it is the strongest emotional and physiological response. For some, this may be classical music, and for others it may be heavy metal,” says Dr. McCrary.

Interestingly, engaging with music elicits autonomic nervous system activation patterns similar to those we experience when we exercise. However, Dr. McCrary says the magnitude of these responses to music is of a lower magnitude compared to exercise.

In a recent post published in JAMA Network Open, Dr. McCrary and his colleagues revealed that repeatedly engaging in music – which could be listening to music, playing an instrument, or singing – has a real and tangible positive impact on our overall health. This tangible positive impact of music appears to be about half the impact of positive health effects of regular exercise.

“This study provides the first quantitative evidence of clinically meaningful improvements in well-being and health-related quality of life associated with musical engagement. Additionally, by focusing on studies that used the SF-36 – the most widely used short-form health survey – this analysis allowed us to compare and contextualize for the first time the magnitude of the impacts of music interventions by versus established interventions such as exercise and weight loss.”

Based on the study results, Dr. McCrary says he is pleasantly surprised to find that the impact of music interventions is, on average, tangible, quantifiable, and statistically and clinically significant.

“The most exciting thing about these results is the information they provide about the potential impact of music on our overall health. For example, exercise is associated with preventing 1.6 million annual deaths. “If music can have half that impact, we envision preventing 800,000 preventable deaths per year. So the potential here is exciting if we can figure out how to target and maximize the effects of music,” says Dr McCrary .


Read more: Why learn a musical instrument


“Previous systematic reviews used narrative methods to synthesize the wide range of, often contradictory, findings regarding the impact of music on health. That is, this study aimed to be very direct and quantitative, taking a “cold” and unbiased approach to the effects of music, and I was not sure that the impact of music on quality health-related life (HRQOL) would be quantifiably significant.

The researchers acknowledge that individual variation in results is wide, meaning the impact of engagement with music at the individual level is still unclear. The analysis also could not provide information on how to optimize music “prescriptions”, for example the duration or frequency of music use.

“The practical implication of these limitations is that, although we now have a better idea of ​​the average impact of music interventions, much more work needs to be done to enable music to be reliably prescribed for maximum of health benefits in a given individual.”

According to Dr. McCrary, the next big step in realizing the health potential of music is the creation of a framework to reliably prescribe the health effects of music across individuals.

This framework was developed theoretically, adapting key information from the development of reliable exercise prescriptions. The immediate next step is to empirically test this prescribing framework and see if it can consistently produce positive health outcomes in a variety of real-world settings, such as clinical rehabilitation and public health programs. The aim is to start doing so by the end of the year.

As the great Swedish supergroup ABBA said, thank you for the music.

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