A favorite musical tune can stir up positive memories, boost your mood, and create a soothing, relaxing setting. But used in specific ways, music also is a valuable tool for supporting your health.
"Whether you need to relax, increase your energy, improve your thinking, or just get motivated for the day, music can provide extra support when you need it the most," says Marisabelle Diaz-Falcon, a music therapist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
Scientists have found that listening to music can stimulate various brain regions that change how you think and move. "The right kind of music used in the right situation can enhance your emotional state as well as overall health, depending on your needs," says Diaz-Falcon.
Here are some ways to tap into the power of music and how the right tunes can keep your health in a good rhythm.
Dreading a workout or have trouble staying motivated? Turn up some high-tempo music. Research in the November 2019 Psychology of Sport and Exercise found that upbeat music can make a rigorous workout seem less challenging and more enjoyable.
In the study, people performed high-intensity interval training (HIIT), where they exercised at a high level followed by a brief rest period, and then repeated the cycle for a set amount of time. The group did three 10-minute HIIT routines. For each workout, they listened to either fast-paced motivational music, an audio-only podcast, or nothing.
The exercisers in the music group reported enjoying their HIIT workout more than those in the other two groups. They also did the workouts with greater intensity. The researchers speculated that high-tempo music alters the body's natural biological rhythms -- you increase your pace and heart rate to match the music's rhythm. In this way, music offers an extra physical boost when you feel unmotivated or fatigued.
Other research has shown that listening to high-tempo music reduces one's perceived exertion, so it seems like exercise takes less effort.
Next time you are nervous about a medical procedure, turn on some tunes. An analysis of 72 trials involving almost 7,000 patients published in the Oct. 24, 2015, issue of The Lancetfound that patients who listened to music before, during, and after surgery reported less postoperative pain and less need for pain medication. Earlier studies had found that listening to music before and during an in-office procedure like a biopsy or dental work lowered people's anxiety levels.
Music produces a calming effect by stimulating the brain's pleasure region, prompting the release of chemicals like feel-good dopamine, pain-relieving endorphins, and mood-soothing serotonin. The right choice of music also appears to be necessary. People respond best to familiar music, according to Diaz-Falcon. "Melodies that are predictable can promote feelings of control and calm," she says. "Many familiar songs also have an emotional component because they are associated with a positive memory."
Music has long served as a sleep aid, but waking up to a pleasant tone instead of a jarring alarm can reduce morning grogginess and improve alertness, suggests a study published online Jan. 28, 2020, by PLoS One. Set your smartphone alarm to play soft, harmonic sounds or a soothing tune.
Many studies have shown that college students who listen to ambient sounds while studying have less anxiety, greater concentration, and better test scores. (Ambient sounds include nature sounds, soothing instrumental music like acoustic guitars, piano, and electronic tones.)
According to Diaz-Falcon, these sounds work because they offer a steady rhythm with no sudden and disrupting tempo changes. "This provides a calming environment and blocks distractions that can interfere with your thought process," she says. "Ambient music is also believed to activate areas in your brain responsible for analytical thinking and creativity, as well as increasing the brain's ability to absorb and retain information." Try listening to ambient sounds the next time you face a complex task.