Music for your Health

By R. Mack Harrell, MD, FACP, FACE, ECNU

Human beings are innately musical. Our biology demands it. Every human heart beats in its own unique rhythm. The accent patterns of our speech identify us city folk from South Boston or Midwestern farmers from South Dakota. Scientists are convinced that the recognition of specific “danger” sounds (a baby’s cry, a woman’s scream, a saber-toothed tiger’s growl) has had great survival value for our species. Given the evolutionary pressure to develop a keen sense of hearing, it is not surprising that over millions of years, we humans have also developed our own sonic language that transcends the function of human speech. Our creation of sound for sound’s sake is called “music.”

In 2008, scientists digging up a huge granite cave over 1700 feet above sea level in Germany found a 5-holed flute made from vulture wing bone. This flute was carbon dated to about 35,000 BC. This monstrous cave was probably the site of the first human “rock” concert. Scientists think humans have been actively making music since about 50,000 BC.

Thus, music is an art form that defines our species from the dawn of pre-history. It continues to have near-magical powers over human behavior to this day. If you don’t believe this, just go with your pre-teen daughter to a Justin Bieber concert. Music’s healing properties have been suspected since the first tribal shaman shook a gourd over the death bed of a fallen warrior. Despite this long-standing healing history, modern medicine has been slow to adopt music as an important tool of the healing arts. Nevertheless, modern medicine is slowly changing.

In his book, Musicophilia, noted Columbia University neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks observes that music therapy can treat the loss of expressive language in patients following brain injury from stroke. In addition to restoring normal speech, music can also trigger the release of brain-altering chemicals called endorphins that revive lost memories and emotions. Dr. Sacks states that Parkinson’s and stroke patients respond to music therapy because the human brain is uniquely programmed to respond to rhythmic sound. More than any other mammals, humans are pre-wired to tap their feet while listening to music. In patients with Parkinson’s disease who cannot walk or move in a coordinated fashion, scientists believe that music triggers undamaged networks of nerve cells that allow translation of the beat into organized body movement. Dr. Concetta Tomaino, co-founder of the New York City Institute for Music and Neurologic Function, notes that “someone who is frozen (from Parkinson’s or stroke) can immediately release and begin walking. They can co-ordinate their steps to synchronize with the music.”

Dr. Gottfried Schlaug, a Harvard University neurologist, thinks music provides an alternate entry point to the brain, bypassing portions that are blocked by injury or disease. Various aspects of music engage many regions of the brain that are also devoted to speech, movement, and social interaction. Dr. Schlaug suggests that if disease or trauma has disabled a part of the brain needed for these human activities, music can sometimes get in through a “back door” and restore function through an alternate route, teaching the brain “new tricks.”

At the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Neurologic Restoration in Ohio, Director Dr. Ali Rezai describes the science of music therapy as being in its infancy. During a surgery called deep brain stimulation — done while patients with Parkinson’s disease are awake — Dr. Rezai and his team play classical music while measuring the brain’s electrical response to those notes. “We know music can calm, influence creativity, can energize. That’s great. But music’s role in recovering from disease is being ever more appreciated.”

Dr. Claudius Conrad at Harvard Medical School is a gifted pianist and a lead investigator in a study looking at the effects of music on the sleep patterns of critically ill patients. He notes that “research has already shown that if you play a classical piece of music — like Mozart — at a certain slow beat, the listener will adapt their heart beat to the beat of the music.” At the University of Munich, Dr. Conrad was able to show that critically ill patients required fewer sedative drugs when they listened to one hour of Mozart. As expected, the patients’ blood pressures and heart rates became more stable while they listened to the music. But patients also had a 50 percent spike in pituitary [pih-TWO-ih-tear-ee] growth hormone, which can stimulate healing. Dr. Conrad now asks his patients (or their families) what music they’d like to hear before he begins surgery; if neither can provide an answer, he usually plays Mozart.

In summary, enjoying music is a uniquely human trait that makes our lives better and contributes to brain health. Our ancestors have used music and rhythmic sound as healing tools for over 50,000 years. Given this fact, it is ironic that modern physicians should only recently have rediscovered the healing power of music.

your preference is Mozart or Lady Gaga, make it a point to enjoy a few minutes of your favorite “beats” on a daily basis. You’ll be healthier and happier for it.

Dr. R. Mack Harrell’s life is centered around sound. By day, in his Fort Lauderdale, Florida endocrinology practice, he uses sound above the range of human hearing (high resolution ultrasound) to locate tiny parathyroid and thyroid tumors in patients preparing for minimally invasive endocrine surgery. By night, in his music studio in Boca Raton, he creates sonic experiences (songs) for the pop and country markets and is actively pursuing his first Nashville cut.