Girl Planting seeds

The Musical Environment

Autistic_BoyOver the past few years I have written here about all types of environmental influences on our health and well-being: nutritional, psychological, social, physical, and chemical. But we haven’t covered one important environmental contributor to the quality of our lives: the musical environment. Because music is all around us—at the mall, in the elevator, in the waiting room at the dentist—we take it for granted and often pay it no mind. But as it turns out if we pay attention, there is a huge potential for music to support our health on many different levels.


For starters, music can have a direct impact on our physical state, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and helping regulate the levels of specific hormones. Some studies show, for example, that music therapy interventions in the cardiac intensive care unit can reduce the likelihood of heart rhythm abnormalities and other complications. This calming effect on our physical selves can be an important contributor to overall reduction of stress, because when our heart rate is fast, we tend to become more anxious, and when it slows, to become calmer. Music has also been shown to decrease pain, especially after medical procedures, leading to lower requirements for opioids and other pain medications.


On an emotional and psychological level, music has an incredibly wide range of positive effects. In particular, music has been shown to have a positive impact in both anxiety and depression, and to affect the levels of several important regulators of mood and psychological state including dopamine, which is associated with pleasure and reward centers in the brain, oxytocin, which impacts our ability to connect with other people, and cortisol, which is the primary hormone in our stress response. On a mental or cognitive level, the impact of music can be somewhat variable. For example, studies show that certain people do better on exams when they listen to music while studying, and others do worse, as they experience the music as distracting. This seems to be related to personality type—not specifically to the type of music. 


Some of the strongest evidence of music’s “environmental” power is on people with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. In this population, who often have behavior problems associated with the confused state caused by their disease, music can dramatically improve agitation and stress. It can help improve cognitive function and reduce psychiatric symptoms in people with dementia, leading to overall improvement in quality of life in important ways in as well. And some studies have shown that personalizing the choice of music—for example, picking songs or musical pieces that are familiar to a particular person from earlier in their life before they developed dementia—can have an especially potent effect.


Recent research also shows that music may also have a positive benefit in people with schizophrenia and certain other psychiatric disorders, leading to improved social functioning and overall reduction of symptoms. Because this is another group of people—like those with dementia—who can experience difficulty managing social situations, this could be a new important tool. This particular area needs more research, though, as the findings still differ between different studies.

So in thinking about “environmental health” for ourselves and our families and loved ones as we continue to navigate these challenging pandemic times, it looks like we should add the musical environment into the mix. Rather than look at music as just something in the background in the car or on an elevator, we can benefit by paying attention to what types of music make us feel more healthy and well, and making those more of a regular part of our day-to-day experience.


Dr._KliglerDr. Kligler is the Medical Advisor for The Deirdre Imus Environmental Health Center®. He is also the National Director of the Integrative Health Coordinating Center for the Veterans Health Administration and Research Director for the Office of Patient Centered Care & Cultural Transformation. He was the founding  Director  of the Beth Israel Fellowship Program in Integrative Medicine, and teaches in the Beth Israel Residency Program in Urban Family Practice. Dr. Kligler is the author of Curriculum in Complementary Therapies: A Guide for the Medical Educator, and co-editor of Integrative Medicine: Principles for Practice, a textbook published by McGraw-Hill. He is also Co-Editor-in-Chief of the peer-reviewed journal Explore: The Journal of Science and Healing.


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