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'Music therapy could be used to treat heart attack and stroke victims'

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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 also reduced.
Brought to you by NHS Choices

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 does experience short-term physiological changes in response to classical music, but 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 have 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, looking 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 in finding out if physiological responses were dependent on whether or not a person had musical training.

The researchers enrolled 24 healthy white adults (average age 25 years old). 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 (eg, crescendo versus stable emphasis) could produce the same heart and breathing changes in the two groups or whether responses were influenced by music 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, which were:

  • 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” from 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 Nei Lieti Calici” from La Traviata.

After listening to the music the participants’ were asked if they experienced any strong emotional responses to each piece (e.g. chills), and rated the pleasantness of each piece, how new it was to them, and the intensity of emotion on a scale from one (very low) to five (very high). The researchers looked at whether participants’ physiological measurements (i.e. 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 lead 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 more uniform tempo led to dilation (widening) of the blood vessels in the skin and reduction in blood pressure.
  • Silence lead to relaxation, as 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 also say that 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, or be beneficial for 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 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.

Links to the headlines

Music could be used to treat heart attack and stroke victims, claim scientists. The Daily Telegraph, June 23 2009

Links to the science

Bernardi L, Porta C, Casucci G et al.Dynamic Interactions Between Musical, Cardiovascular, and Cerebral Rhythms in Humans. Circulation, June 22 2009 [Published online before print]

This article was originally published by NHS Choices

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