Q: Peter, in this interview we’d like to explore how music affects our health. From the standpoint of health, is music’s effect on us greater than that of other art forms, such as painting or sculpture, for example?
A: Yes. Paramhansa Yogananda writes that sound is “the most powerful force in the universe.” Music penetrates more deeply into our consciousness, and into the brain and nervous system, than do paintings and other visual images. We have limited control over music’s effects once it enters our “neural network.”
Q. Yogananda has also said that music can be very healing. He cites as an example the physical healings that occurred when he chanted “O God Beautiful” with a Carnegie Hall audience during his early years in America. Is there any scientific research on the healing effects of music and, if so, what kind of music is science investigating?
A. There’s a considerable body of research showing that music can have healing effects for certain physical and mental disorders. In fact, music therapy is a widely recognized form of treatment for anxiety, depression, chronic pain, cardiovascular disease, and weakened immunity.
A recent study of music’s effect on depression and chronic pain is a good example of the research taking place. In that study, sixty people listened to “pleasant music” for an hour a day for one week. Some chose their “favorite” music while others chose from tapes provided by the music therapists. The music included pop music, slow melodious tunes, orchestral music, and relaxation music with nature sounds.
Interestingly, all of the music had healing effects. The people who were depressed experienced as much as a 25% improvement in their depressive symptoms, which is about what we see when we treat depression with medication or psychotherapy. Those with chronic pain disorders experienced up to a 20% decrease in their symptoms, again approximating what we can achieve with medical treatment.
These statistics are very encouraging from a medical standpoint. I have a number of patients in my medical practice who experience a lot of back pain even though they’ve had multiple back surgeries. Even opiate pain relievers like morphine now have only a limited effect for them. But we’ve been able to get them additional pain relief with music therapy.
Q. You mentioned that some of those who participated in this study listened to their “favorite” music. Is there something special about listening to one’s “favorite” music that promotes healing?
A. Yes. Medical science has known for a while that positive emotions are beneficial to health and healing, but what our studies are beginning to show is that music can activate those emotions. Having people listen to their “favorite music” is one way of activating healing emotions.
Q. Can you explain how that works from a neurological standpoint?
A. All of us “encode” music with emotion, meaning that we associate music with pleasant or painful memories. There’s an area in the brain—right behind the forehead—that links music, memories and emotions. Whenever we hear a familiar piece of music, a “soundtrack” starts playing in the brain that calls back memories of situations, people, or places. That “soundtrack” activates a positive or negative response, depending on our associations, and each person’s response will be unique.
I know of one woman, for example, who always felt depressed when she heard Pachebel’s Canon, which is a very benign piece of classical music. She said, “It’s a wonderful piece of music but my boyfriend broke up with me while we were listening to it, and even though that was 25 years ago, it still makes me cry when I hear it.”
Q. Given music’s “encoding” effect, have any studies examined the healing effects of listening to “favorite music?”
A. Yes. There have been two studies of people with cardiovascular disease. In one study most participants selected “country music” as their favorite music to evoke joy. The research showed that listening to this music had a very healthy effect on the dilation of their blood vessels, increasing the relaxed dilation by an average of 26%.
The other study involved stroke patients with visual impairments. The study concluded that the positive emotions activated by the music caused more efficient signaling in the brain, which stimulated the brain cells or neurons relating to vision. Thus, the stroke patients were able to see better. Anything that can help stroke patients is an important gain since many of them suffer from depression due to stroke-related impairments.
Q. Can we go so far as to say that listening to one’s favorite music can change a person’s overall outlook on life?
A. The studies suggest that how we interpret the world is often dependent on how we’re feeling inside, and that music is certainly one way of influencing those feelings. When we’re feeling happy and upbeat we tend to make more positive assumptions about life than when we’re feeling negative.
With or without scientific studies, we know that music can enhance whatever outlook we already have, positive or negative. Swami Kriyananda has sometimes referred to a song called Gloomy Sunday, which was aired frequently on the radio during the 1930s. The song was eventually banned because some listeners, caught up in its mood of life-rejection, were committing suicide.
Q. Are you implying that the mere fact that a person likes a certain kind of music doesn’t necessarily make it healing?
A. That’s correct. A book Swami Kriyananda has often mentioned, Beyond the Darkness, illustrates this point. The author of the book, Angie Fenimore, was very attracted to “heavy metal” music as a young person. In her book she describes her near-death experience after her suicide attempt, and the “dark” region she visited. She reports that that the depressed “vibrations” of that dark region were identical to the heavy metal music she once listened to. Ever since her successful recovery, she has tried to persuade people that heavy metal music, with its angry hypnotic beat, is harmful.
The scientific studies of the health effects of heavy metal and rap music all confirm that music of this type is harmful to our brain, nervous system, and ultimately our health.
Q. Do the studies suggest self-help measures – ways people can use music to overcome certain illnesses or to strengthen their health?
A. So far, most of the health benefits we’re aware of have occurred as part of studies using trained music therapists, or as part of fairly elaborate treatment programs designed by physicians or trained behavioral therapists.
In our medical clinic, however, we routinely suggest lists of light classical music and spiritual music in our treatment plans for our behavioral health patients. Swami Kriyananda has also suggested certain selections from Ananda’s music repertoire as being helpful for worry, depression, and other emotional disorders.
Q. What advice would you give people who want to use music to improve or maintain their health?
A. Music that is upbeat, uplifting, calming, and promotes a peaceful frame of mind would be good to listen to. However, although I can give general advice based on the type of music and its likely effects, it’s very important for each person to monitor his or her own reactions.
Because of the encoding effects of music I’ve already mentioned, music that’s healing for most people may not be beneficial for everyone. The studies show that classical music has healing effects, especially for uplifting one’s mood and strengthening the immune system, but if the classical music you’re listening to makes you feel a little nervous or uneasy, then I wouldn’t recommend listening to it.
It’s also very important to be sensitive to the how you respond to the rhythmic patterns of the music. There was a study showing that exercising on a treadmill while keeping time to the beat of motivational rock music helped people enjoy their workouts more and increased their physical endurance by as much as 15%. At the same time, Swami Kriyananda suggests that the rhythmic patterns of rock music are usually ego-affirming, which means that listening to this kind of music could be harmful spiritually, even if it enhances your endurance. A safer alternative might be classical music with a rhythmic beat or spiritual music with a tabla drum.
We should also be sensitive to the soundtracks of movies. I used to teach a program on music and the chakras, and I took most of the music I used to illustrate the lower chakras from movie soundtracks. These were easy selections to make because so many movie soundtracks focus on those lower centers.
Q: How does Kriyananda’s music fit into what we know from scientific research?
A: It’s an excellent example of the kind of music that would be helpful for its positive effects on mood and also health — strengthening the immune function, reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease, lowering blood pressure. Kriyananda’s music also has very good lyrics. Positive lyrics can also benefit our overall health, including our mood.
Because our brain is so changeable, we have to be careful about our environment. When we’re watching a movie with agitating or chaotic music, our brain and nervous system absorb what we’re hearing. The more we expose ourselves to positive, upbeat music, the stronger the impact on our overall health. I always remind my patients that what we expose ourselves to in life is always a conscious choice.