Each of us has paraphrased the William Congreve line from his play, The Mourning Bride: “Music hath charms to soothe the savage beast (actually, breast).” But what is the empirical evidence to support this statement, and, in turn, what impact does music have on our stress levels and degree of happiness, as well as our health?
A study more than a decade old, by researchers at the University of Texas at Tyler (Hubbard, 2001) states that “tones at a faster tempo were rated as happier, brighter, faster. Similarly, higher pitch tones and ascending tones were rated as happier, brighter and faster. So much for statistical clarification. Some music, simply stated, is more upbeat, and evokes a more lively feeling.
But the feeling of happiness does not necessarily mean that we feel better, feel less stress or experience improved health. Other studies do, though, confirm those effects. The question is, does the happiness evoked from specific music experiences translate into general wellbeing?
The Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine reported (2001) that “all types of music were capable of reducing heart rates and blood pressure, and of controlling stress. The researchers who performed the experiments believe that the beneficial effects of music are related to the patient’s ability to choose the music. In other words, when people get to choose the music, they appear to be more relaxed.” Again, this is intuitively obvious. When we are in control of a situation, we are less likely to be stressed by it, and, in turn, our heart rates and blood pressure should decline.
A corollary result of this study found that music could reduce the stress associated with eye surgery. This is less intuitive, but consistent with other studies on the correlation between music that we enjoy and a feeling of wellbeing.
Is some music more likely to affect us positively? Again, the answer is intuitively clear: yes. We all are aroused, soothed, excited, pleased, saddened or emboldened by specific songs, music or genres of music. I, for instance, find blues very enjoyable and calming, when the very name suggests that I should be saddened. On the other hand, I do not care for jazz, and feel more tense when it is played. Electronica and New Age music relaxes me late at night, while classical music improves my concentration. Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” and Bony M’s “Brown Girl In The Ring” evoke similar feelings, since both are associated with particularly memorable times in my life.
Some songs, for others, send shivers down the spine, or produce goose bumps. These are not universal responses. Researchers state that no external stimuli will automatically turn on stress (or happiness) responses, unless we choose to let it. For many of us, though, those responses seem automatic. Stress reaction always depends upon how an event interpreted or perceived.
The University of Maryland School of Medicine insists that listening to your favourite music is good for your cardiovascular system and provide a healthy effect on blood vessel function. (“Positive Emotions and the Endothelium: Does Joyful Music Improve Vascular Health?” Miller M, Beach V, Mangano C, Vogel RA. Oral Presentation. American Heart Association Scientific Sessions, 11/11/2008).
Empirical data from objective studies, along with anecdotal information from subjective reports point to a clear fact: good music means good health and good mood. So turn that rap music up loud, unless you loathe rap, sing along to your favourite opera, unless you like your neighbours, and get a happy on! It’s good for all of us.