Listening to music feels good, but can that translate into physiological benefit? Levitin and colleagues published a meta-analysis of 400 studies in the journal Trends in Cognitive Sciences, suggesting the answer is yes.
In one study reviewed, researchers studied patients who were about to undergo surgery. Participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music or take anti-anxiety drugs. Scientists tracked patient’s ratings of their own anxiety, as well as the levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
The results: The patients who listened to music had less anxiety and lower cortisol than people who took drugs. Levitin cautioned that this is only one study, and more research needs to be done to confirm the results, but it points toward a powerful medicinal use for music.
“The promise here is that music is arguably less expensive than drugs, and it’s easier on the body and it doesn’t have side effects,” Levitin said.
Levitin and colleagues also highlighted evidence that music is associated with immunoglobin A, an antibody linked to immunity, as well as higher counts of cells that fight germs and bacteria.
So music is good for us, but how do we judge what music is pleasurable? A study published in the journal Science suggests that patterns of brain activity can indicate whether a person likes what he or she is hearing.
Valorie Salimpoor, a researcher at the Rotman Research Institute in Toronto and former Levitin student, led a study in which participants listened to 60 excerpts of music they had never heard before while in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine.
It seems intuitive that different people, based on their personalities, preferences and personal histories of listening to particular music, will have different experiences when exposed to a particular piece of music. Their attention to various details will vary and they might like different things about it.
But Levitin and his collaborators showed in a European Journal of Neuroscience study that, from the perspective of the brain, there may be more similarities among music listeners than you think.