Classical music, whether you love it or hate it, has been a powerful cultural force for centuries. While it no longer dominates the music scene, the argument for continued appreciation of the genre goes far beyond pure aural aesthetics. Classical music has been lauded for its ability to do everything from improve intelligence to reduce stress, and despite some exaggeration of its benefits, science shows us that it actually does have a marked effect on the brain in a number of positive ways.
With September being Classical Music Month, there’s no better time to learn a bit more about some of the many ways classical music affects the brain. Over the past few decades, there have been numerous studies on the brain’s reaction to classical music, and we’ve shared the most relevant, interesting, and surprising here, some of which may motivate you to become a classical aficionado yourself.
Music is a very strong form of emotional communication across all cultures, but why? Research may have the answer. Studies show that music, including classical arrangements, has the ability to send chills down your spine or make your heart swell with joy through its use of different musical modes. For example, in Western music, the major mode is associated with excited, happy emotions, the minor with sad emotions. Similar results were found in other cultures around the world despite differences in the emotions that these cultures associate with the varying modes. The reason these musical modes have the ability to convey so much emotion is because they imitate the tonal characteristics of emotion in the voice, tapping into our innate communicative abilities and our cultural associations alike.
Certain medical procedures aren’t especially pleasant to undergo, leaving patients feeling uncomfortable and anxious. Music, research suggests, can be a helpful remedy. Researchers at Duke Cancer Institute found that wearing noise-canceling headphones playing classical music (in this case concertos by Bach) reduced the pain and anxiety of a prostate biopsy. Generally, the procedure causes a spike in diastolic blood pressure as the result of stress and anxiety, but in the men who listened to the music, there was no such spike. Additionally, those who wore headphones reported significantly less pain associated with the procedure. Researchers believe that this method will be an inexpensive way to help make this and other medical procedures less frightening for patients by altering their mental and physical responses to them through use of classical music.
Whether you choose Bach, Beethoven, or Mozart, classical music can have a marked effect on your stress levels and in turn your blood pressure. A University of San Diego study compared changes in blood pressure in individuals who were asked to listen to classical, jazz, or pop selections. Those who listened to classical music had significantly lower systolic blood pressure levels after the experiment when compared to participants who heard no music at all or were assigned to other musical styles.
Tolstoy once said, “Music is the shorthand of emotion,” and research is showing that he just might be right, especially with regard to classical music. A study done at Southern Methodist University in 2001 asked students to relay the most significant event or experience in their lives while listening to either silence or classical music in the background. Researchers found that the classical music affected not only the emotional response and the kinds of emotional language used, but also affected the topics participants chose to disclose, promoted greater expression, and actually caused an increase in the pleasure participants got from listening to classical music. This research is not only interesting from an academic standpoint but could also have real-world applications for therapists and counselors who need to get patients to relax, disclose experiences, and get in touch with troubling emotions.
If you’re in need of sleep and counting sheep doesn’t seem to be working, consider helping yourself drift off by playing Brahms’ “Lullaby.” It may sound cheesy, but research suggests that it might actually work. A team of researchers at the University of Toronto found that even insomniacs got help falling asleep by tuning into some classical music before bedtime. The study showed that listening to classical music helped participants fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer, even those who regularly wake up during the night. Classical music is an effective sleep aid because it uses rhythms and tonal patterns that create a meditative mood and slow brainwaves. The most effective pieces in getting participants to sleep were works by Brahms, Handel, Mozart, Strauss, and Bach.
When children’s brainwaves were monitored by an electroencephalogram (EEG), Russian scientists found a significant difference between those who listened to music and those who didn’t. The study, published in Human Physiology in 1996, demonstrated that the group of children who listened to classical music for one hour a day over a six-month period exhibited changes in the alpha rhythm frequency band and greater coherence between different regions of the cerebral cortex, both indicating greater levels of relaxation. More striking, perhaps, is that these changes in the brain and brainwaves occurred in a passive listening setting where children were not required to pay attention to the music.
While playing classical music 24/7 for your children won’t help them to become geniuses, some studies suggest that it does have effect, though perhaps not as drastic of one as those selling classical music learning programs for kids would like you to believe. In a study conducted by Dr. Gordon Shaw of the University of California-Irvine, it was found that infants who listened to Mozart and then studied piano as children scored higher than other children in math. Other studies have found that music listening and practice can help children develop spatial and verbal skills and can also foster self-control.
Classical music as a crime deterrent? Sounds crazy, but it has worked for several cities around the world. In London, city officials began playing classical music at several stations in 2003. A year and a half later, robberies had dropped by a third, assaults on staff by a quarter, and vandalism by 37%. In Portland, a similar effect was found. When transit authorities began piping classical tunes into a high-crime rail station, calls to police at the station dropped by 40%. These cities aren’t alone. Minneapolis, Atlanta, Toronto, and New York have also used classical music as a crime deterrent. It’s not quite clear what effect the music has on would-be criminals, however. Some believe it has a soothing effect, others suggest that it gives the appearance of order and civility that deters crime on its own. In some cases, it may simply drive those away who don’t have a taste for the genre. Whatever the reason, classical music seems to be a cheap and effective way for cities to improve the safety of their transit systems.
Need to relax? Try some classical music. An article published in the Journal of Clinical Nursing in 2008 showcased a study on pregnant women, who reported reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and depression after listening to a 30-minute CD of classical hits. Dr. Kevin Labar of Duke University states that classical music produces this calming effect by prompting the brain to release dopamine (a hormone associated with pleasure) and inhibiting the release of stress hormones. Labar stresses, however, that if you don’t like classical music, you won’t get the same effect, and that other methods of relaxation might be a better fit.
Premature babies need all the help they can get to catch up to their full-term counterparts, and studies done in Tel Aviv suggest that music could be a key component of helping these babies grow up to be strong and healthy. Dr. Dror Mandel and Dr. Ronit Lubetzky at Tel Aviv University exposed premature babies to a half hour of Mozart every day, with striking results. The babies who listened to the music grew far more rapidly than those who weren’t exposed to the music. The researchers still aren’t sure what is causing the effect, but they think it has to do with the calming properties of classical music, which can help reduce stress and boost the immune systems of even the youngest listeners. Regardless of the cause, the effect is another tool that can help pre-term babies to gain weight, grow, and get sent home with their anxiously awaiting parents weeks sooner.