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Turning on the tunes: 3 evidence-based benefits of music

The Bottom Line

  • Research demonstrates that music is a seemingly safe complementary and alternative strategy that may hold health benefits.  
  • Music therapy may reduce anxiety, pain, depression, and fatigue in cancer patients who are in the hospital to undergo a surgery/procedure/treatment.
  • Walking to a steady beat or music may improve walking speed, stride length, walk rhythm, and symmetry.
  • Music-based interventions may improve sleep quality.
  • Try incorporating music into your treatment plans, as needed. But first, consult your health care team for a fulsome discussion of the potential benefits and how to engage in music-related activities as safely as possible.

What do radio, vinyl records, cassettes, CDs, YouTube, and Spotify have in common? They are all ways that people can listen to music, the universal language that breaks down barriers—like space and time—and builds invisible bridges that connect us. Renowned American TV and radio personality Dick Clark once said that “Music is the soundtrack of your life.” If you take a second to think about it, Mr. Clark was spot-on. Music acts as a timestamp. With the press of a button, it can transport us to different times in our lives, such as our first high school dance, favourite concert, or wedding day. With these memories come the thoughts and emotions we felt in those moments. Given the power it holds, it is not surprising that music has entered the health arena and has been the focus of many studies (1-10). 


So, what does the research have to say about the benefits of music for our mental and physical health? Here are just a few of the evidence-based findings on the important role that music can play. Click on the links below to learn more.


1. Music for hospital stays

Surgery and a hospital stay are no walk in the park; for many of us, they are stressful and scary. Music therapy, a safe and non-invasive complementary strategy to medical treatments, can yield positive results for cancer patients who are in hospital to undergo a surgery/procedure/treatment (2;4). More specifically, patients who listen to music before and/or after a surgery/procedure/treatment may experience moderate reductions in anxiety, pain, and depression. Slightly less fatigue may be another plus (4). There is evidence to suggest that greater benefits can be attained when patients choose their own music (3;4).


2. Music for walking

As we age, we may notice changes to our walking ability, such as our steps becoming shorter and pace slowing down. Changes like these can reduce mobility and increase the risk of falls (10;11). But do not be disheartened! There are ways to "side-step" these issues, or at the very least, lessen them. Listening to a steady beat (e.g., like that provided by a metronome) or music while walking can help to enhance walking speed, the length of our stride, and the rhythm and symmetry of our walk (7;8). When choosing what to listen to, aim for music with a unique and stable rhythm; and that you find enjoyable. Remember not to “lose yourself to the music,” meaning keep the volume at an acceptable level that does not hinder your ability to be aware of your surroundings, namely traffic, people, and other important noises.


3. Music for sleep quality

Not getting good quality sleep can negatively impact our mental, cognitive, and physical health (10;12-15). Although medications for sleep-related issues do exist, they are associated with unwanted side effects, such as an increased risk for illness, dependence, and death (10;16-18). Alternatively, music-based interventions—which generally involve listening to music and in some cases also making it—are non-drug strategies that appear to have the potential to improve sleep quality. Although generally deemed a safe strategy, take stock of any possible hazards and put in place actions to remedy them (10). For instance, using headphones while sleeping may not be ideal, so speakers may be the way to go. Maintaining volume control is also important. 


There you have it! There is research that supports the use of music in specific scenarios, such as hospital stays, walking, and sleep-related matters. More research is needed to better understand the effects of music-based strategies, but because they have been found to be generally safe, non-invasive, and cost-effective, they may be worth a try. But first, consult with your health care team for a comprehensive discussion of the potential pros and safety considerations.


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References

  1. Bradt J, Dileo C, Shim M. Music interventions for pre-operative anxiety. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013; 6:CD006908. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006908.pub2.
  2. Economidou E, Klimi A, Vivikalki VG, et al. Does music reduce post-operative pain? A review. Health Sci J. 2012; 6:365-377.
  3. Hole J, Hirsch M, Ball E, et al. Music as an aid for postoperative recovery in adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Lancet. 2015; 386:1659-1671. doi: 10.1016/S0140-6736(15)60169-6.
  4. Tsai HF, Chen YR, Chung MH, et al. Effectiveness of music intervention in ameliorating cancer patients’ anxiety, depression, pain and fatigue: A Meta-analysis. Cancer Nurs. 2014; 37(6):E35-50. doi: 10.1097/NCC.0000000000000116.
  5. Kühlmann AYR, de Rooij A, Kroese LF, et al. Meta-analysis evaluating music interventions for anxiety and pain in surgery. Br JJ Surg. 2018; 105(7):773-783. doi: 10.1002/bjs.10853. 
  6. Sakamoto JT, Ward HB, Vissoci JRN, et al. Are nonpharmacologic pain interventions effective at reducing pain in adult patients visiting the emergency department? A systematic review and meta-analysis. Acad Emerg Med. 2018. doi: 10.1111/acem.13411.
  7. Nascimento LR, de Oliveira CQ, Ada L, et al. Walking training with cueing of cadence improves walking speed and stride length after stroke more than walking training alone: A systematic review. J Physiother. 2015; 61(1):10-15. doi: 10.1016/j.jphys.2014.11.015. 
  8. McGee WL, Clark I, Tamplin J, et al. Music interventions for acquired brain injury. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017; 1:CD006787. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD006787.pub3. 
  9. Peurala S, Karttunnen AH, Sjögren T, et al. Evidence for the effectiveness of walking training on walking and self-care after stroke: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. J Rehabil Med. 2014; 46(5):387-399. doi: 10.2340/16501977-1805.
  10. Wang C, Li G, Zheng L, et coll. Effects of music intervention on sleep quality of older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Complement Ther Med. 2021; 59:102719. doi: 10.1016/j.ctim.2021.102719.
  11. Chui K, Hood E, Klima D. Meaningful changes in walking speed. Top Geriatr Rehabil. 2012; 28(2):97-103. doi: 10.1097/TGR.0b013e3182510195.
  12. Lusardi M, Chui K. Is walking speed a vital sign? Absolutely. Top Geriatr Rehabil. 2012; 28(2):67-76. doi: 10.1097/TGR.0b013e31823d7b9f.
  13. Campanini MZ, Mesas AE, Carnicero-Carreno JA, et coll. Duration and quality of sleep and risk of physical function impairment and disability in older adults: Results from the ENRICA and ELSA cohorts. Aging Dis. 2019; 10:557-569.
  14. Nadorff MR, Drapeau CW, Pigeon WR. Psychiatric illness and sleep in older adults: Comorbidity and opportunities for intervention. Sleep Med Clin. 2018; 13:81-91. doi: 10.1016/j.jsmc.2017.09.008.
  15. Krause AJ, Simon EB, Mander BA, et coll. The sleep-deprived human brain. Nat Rev Neurosci. 2017; 18:404-418. doi: 10.1038/nrn.2017.55. 
  16. Gulia KK, Kumar VM. Sleep disorders in the elderly: A growing challenge (Review). Psychogeriatrics. 2018; 18:155-165. doi: 10.1111/psyg.12319.
  17. Woolcott JC, Richardson KJ, Wiens MO, et coll. Meta-analysis of the impact of 9 medication classes on falls in elderly persons. Arch Intern Med. 2009; 169:1952-1960. doi: 10.1001/archinternmed.2009.357.
  18. Riemann D, Nissen C, Palagini L, et coll. The neurobiology, investigation, and treatment of chronic insomnia. Lancet Neurol. 2015; 14:547-558. doi: 10.1016/S1474-4422(15)00021-6.

DISCLAIMER: These summaries are provided for informational purposes only. They are not a substitute for advice from your own health care professional. The summaries may be reproduced for not-for-profit educational purposes only. Any other uses must be approved by the McMaster Optimal Aging Portal (info@mcmasteroptimalaging.org).

Many of our Blog Posts were written before the COVID-19 pandemic and thus do not necessarily reflect the latest public health recommendations. While the content of these blogs identify activities that support optimal aging, it is important to defer to the most current public health recommendations such as social distancing and frequent hand washing. Some of the activities suggested within these blogs may need to be modified or avoided altogether to comply with current social distancing recommendations. To view the latest updates from the Public Health Agency of Canada, please visit their website.

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