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Biology, Psychology

Let the music play: Music and anxiety

We are living in interesting times. With the threat of getting sick from Covid-19, which is enough to cause anxiety, we are also isolating and restricting our movements. I’ve noticed an upsurge on views on my post on exercise and mental health so I thought I would look into a related topic: music and anxiety.

An antique piano

I’m very fortunate that I play instruments and I have been playing over my lunch break almost every day since I moved my office home. I notice that for the time I’m playing I’m not stressing out over what’s going on in the world. Nothing is sending alerts to me telling me how bad things are and I’m not, for those moments, working on projects to help people deal with the sudden changes to their work situations. Sadly, I didn’t find any research that investigated music creation and mental health or anxiety. My guess is that part of this is a convenience of accessing a sample since we very rarely have people who are stressed who also play instruments and are in locations where they can play those instruments, but perhaps someone out there is looking for a research topic. I bet you could get others like me who are musicians amateur or professional who are using music to help handle the current situation.

I have also been listening to a lot of music; I’m thrilled with how many people and organizations have put music online specifically to help people through this time and still share their incredible talents and hard work. I’ve included a few links to ones below, of course depending on when you read this they may be out of date. The mental health impacts of listening to music have been studied. A lot of the research relates to patients, so people with things like cardiac (heart) issues and cancer. Again, perhaps an opportunity here to study a wider population?

Stuckey and Nobel (2010) completed a review of literature connecting various creative arts on public health. According to this review, music is actually the best studied of the different creative arts (the others were visual arts therapy, movement-based creative expression, and expressive writing). What was interesting to me about this was that it goes back to my questions about music making and listening to music. The other creative arts studied involved the participants doing the art themselves, whereas music was the listening to. To me, these aren’t quite the same but it’s still interesting. I’m going to focus just on the music part of their review.

One of the main areas has been using music to control the chronic pain of cancer. Studies found multiple benefits including a increased sense of control, promotion of wellness and healthy aspects of patient’s lives, decreased pain, increased immunity (presumably because of the next item), decreased anxiety (less stress hormones results in improved immunity), and reductions in both psychological and physical symptoms. Stuckey and Nobel do not detail how these factors were measured in these studies.

In relation to coronary care, researchers measured both patient reports and physical responses and found that music therapy resulted in decreased heart rates and increased peripheral temperatures (the temperature of your limbs tends to decrease when the heart is having issues). In another study with coronary heart disease patients listening to music decreased heart rate and respiratory rate, decreased oxygen demand, and reduced anxiety. Finally, a third group found that cortisol levels (one of the stress hormones) was decreased by listening to music.

I’ve been listening to a lot of classical music while in social isolation. While I enjoy classical music, it isn’t typically my go to during a normal workday. I’m much more likely to listen to either big band or heavy metal, with some random movie music thrown in. So I’m intrigued whether the type of music has an impact on how you respond. I couldn’t find any papers that considered this but I did find that Bringman, Giesecke, Thorne, and Bringman (2009) who studied the effects of “relaxing music” before surgery as an alternative to anti-anxiety medications cited a few studies that indicated that relaxing music should mimic the heart rate at rest and should be instrumental only. I don’t think that the classical I’ve been listening to meets the first criteria but most of it does meet the instrumental one. I’m not sure that is why I’ve been choosing it though. In all honesty, the fact that my mum keeps sending me links to various streaming classical music things might be the bigger influence :). However, Bringman et al’s research was still interesting as they found that the group that listened to music had a significantly greater drop in anxiety compared to the medication they examined. Having had multiple surgeries and who knows what drugs pumped into me for each one I would much rather replace any of them with some music.

So, what’s the verdict? Well, there is definitely room for more research on music and anxiety in the general population, but based on the research that has been done there is support for taking a few minutes out of your day to listen to some music and perhaps forget about the raging pandemic, if only for a short time.

Berliner Philharmoniker Digital Concert Hall is currently making all of their online concerts, and there are a lot of them, and other content free for 30 days.

Musician Daniel Hope is doing an Arte concert series called Hope@Home where he plays with various other musicians (maintaining social distance) from his living room.

The Edmonton Symphony Orchestra has done one live streamed event so far, although I’m hoping for more as this is my hometown symphony. You can find their event from their Facebook page.

The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is posting some of their past events on YouTube.

And if you need a good laugh, the comedic music group The Arrogant Worms posted the Last Roll a song about the hording of toilet paper.

About Tai Munro

I am passionate about making science, sustainability, and sport accessible through engaging information and activities.


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