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You might not be an undergrad anymore, but you can still give learning the old college try. At the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies, April Greenan, Ph.D., teaches a course on music and medicine – and we asked for a lesson.


Music and medicine? Give us examples of how music is being applied to our health.

I could cite so many examples, but here are just a few:

* In 2008, when Congresswoman Gabby Giffords of Arizona was shot during a meeting with her constituents, she lost her ability to speak – the area of the brain responsible for language had been damaged. But unlike language, which is assigned to a specific part of the brain, music functions in almost every region of the brain. So working with a music therapist, Giffords practiced singing until she could speak. Through music, her brain wired a new language pathway.

* For stroke victims, the same therapy helps them recover their speech. Music also is used to help them regain the ability to walk: While listening to specially designed music, patients gradually learn to walk in time with the beat, and the music helps them develop a steady and balanced gait.

* Premature babies who receive music therapy eat and sleep better, grow faster and are discharged from the hospital sooner than premature babies without music therapy.

* Differing music therapies are being successfully applied to autism, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s disease. Some scientists even suggest that musical activity may prevent the development of dementia.

* Singing has been shown to bolster our immune system.

* Music is used in clinical settings to lower heart rate and blood pressure and to minimize pain. Dozens of studies have shown that listening to music can reduce levels of pain intensity by more than 50 percent and, consequently, is an effective alternative to opioids.

Most of us might realize that music can affect our mood – how does that work?

A mood is a temporary emotional state. Music activates the structures of the brain that produce emotion, so it can directly affect mood.

When we listen to music we like, the reward circuitry of the brain is engaged. The nucleus accumbens releases dopamine, which is the chemical that produces the very positive feeling we have when we reach a goal or receive something we want.

Plus, our brains enjoy the element of expectancy inherent in listening to music. In music that’s new to us, we wonder what will happen next, and when we listen to music we already know and like, we enjoy anticipating our favorite parts and feel a sense of reward when we hear them. These responses induce a positive mood.

We can use music to intensify our moods – for example, some people listen to sad music when they’re sad – but we also can use music deliberately to change our moods.

So, can music actually influence our behavior?

Music doesn’t always influence our behavior, but it can.

Here’s just one example: The music we hear as we shop can affect whether we buy something – and even how much we’re willing to pay for it.

One study showed that, in a wine store, people bought more expensive wine when classical music was playing in the background than when popular music was playing. Other experiments have shown that when people listen to country music, they’re willing to pay more for pragmatic products, such as disposable pens and toothbrushes. However, after hearing classical music, they’re willing to pay more for luxury items they don’t need but that represent the social identity they project.

Smart retail and restaurant proprietors match background music to the characteristic tastes of their targeted customers. If, while shopping or eating, we hear music we strongly dislike, we tend to become agitated and want to leave as soon as possible. The right style and tempo of music can make us willing to linger and willing to spend money.

Musical activity is being shown to influence a wide range of behaviors, not just our spending habits. For instance, recent studies of both children and adults show that listening to certain types of music under certain conditions increases altruism.

You teach in college – can music help students get better grades?

Well ... yes, but not as easily as we might wish.

Neuroscientists have compared the brains of musicians and nonmusicians and noticed pronounced differences between the two groups. Musical activity involves virtually every human cognitive function, so it’s not surprising that many studies show that musicians have increased capacity in several areas of the brain.

With the cognitive benefits that come from music training, we would expect students who are engaged with music to score higher on tests and earn better grades than those who are not engaged with music – and, in general, they do. Studies show that students who take music lessons and actively sing or play an instrument tend to outperform those who don’t.

But it takes about two years of focused training before one might begin to reap the academic rewards of music engagement. So, students should start practicing those scales now for better scores in the future!

Are there other ways that music affects our health – or could improve it someday?

Humans have been making music for at least 43,000 years (that's the age of the earliest known musical instruments), but only in the past 40 years has it been possible to see, through functional magnetic resonance imaging and other technologies, how music physically affects the brain and body.

So we’re just beginning to understand the power of music and explore its applications toward health and well-being. This ancient art may well become one of the most effective medical tools of the 21st century.

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