Three weeks ago when I volunteered to play music for patients at the Royal Victoria Hospital (RVH), I was given a special request to play in the psychiatric care centre. The managers who made this request noted that researchers recently released evidence that music can counter the ‘sundowning effect,’ an increased anxiety and restlessness in patients with dementia. Although I had seen that my music could entertain people, I was a bit sceptical at this point about its ability to counter the effects of mental illness.
As I entered the psychiatric care centre, I noticed a dementia patient—as I was told by the staff—walking around the hall, while weeping about something nobody could really understand or help her with.
I sat down in the hallway and began to play my guitar; and after half an hour I noticed that her tears had stopped. After a full hour, she returned to her room in the best mood I’d seen her since I arrived at the hospital. I thought, “Maybe music has an impact on the sundowning effect after all.”
McGill researchers Dr. Daniel Levitin, associate professor of psychology, and Dr. Mona Lisa Chanda, post-doctoral fellow, have recently consolidated quantitative research and experiments showing music’s effect on neurochemical changes on “reward, motivation and pleasure; stress and arousal; immunity; and social affiliation,” according to Chanda’s paper.
“We came up with 400 articles that dealt with music and neurochemistry,” said Chanda, “which was a topic that had never … been covered in a review. It [gave] the question of what we should make of all this and how it can, in turn, guide us in seeing the overall picture and knowing where to go from here in terms of research directions.”
Through consolidating the results of the study, the research team uncovered numerous conclusions. They saw that “several brain imaging studies found musical pleasure associated with activation of brain regions for the mesolimbic system, [which is] also involved in processing other types of awards, such as food or sex.”
According to Chanda, in addition to uncovering a strong sense of award, music—especially relaxing pieces with slow tempo—reduces stress hormone cortisol. This could explain the soothing effect music has on some patients at the RVH.
A further study conducted by the team compared the effects of anti-anxiety medication benzodiazepine, versus musical therapy on reducing post-traumatic stress. Again, the experiment showed a marked stress reduction after musical therapy—even more than prescribed benzodiazepine medication gave.
However, although there is a large amount of research that provides strong evidence of music’s calming, and even healing effects, Chanda notes that in almost all of the studies the confounding variables were not strongly controlled.
For example, one experiment showed the effects of a drum circle, where people from all musical backgrounds learn and play simple percussive melodies in a group environment, and its ability to increase participants’ immune systems. Evidence showed the anticipated increase in the immunity of subjects who played in the drum circle; however, the circle was also a social activity involving storytelling, laughter, social gathering, and other features apart from just music.
“The aspects to it, other than just the musical component, could’ve contributed to the effects on the [drum circle] community,” explained Chanda.
People throughout history have witnessed the effects of music on personal and community health, but quantitative evidence is just beginning to emerge that scientifically explains these phenomena.
“Studies of the neurochemistry of music may be the next great frontier, particularly as researchers try to investigate claims about the effects of music on health outcomes… scientific inquiry into the neurochemical effects of music is still in its infancy.”