The popular hobby that can improve overall health

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published July 15, 2020

Key Takeaways

Many people appreciate that listening to relaxing music is healthy, and it turns out there is data to back it up. According to the results of a cross-sectional study published in the International Journal of Research and Medical Sciences, participants listening to slow music experienced significant decreases in pulse rate and blood pressure, as well as improved cardiac tone. The researchers concluded that slow music triggers the parasympathetic nervous system. 

But taking such findings a step further, does playing a musical instrument result in a health benefit? Apparently so. Here are five health benefits of tickling the ivories, blowing the horn, and so forth.

Music sets the mood

In a review paper published in Federal Practitioner, Debra Shipman, PhD, RN, pointed to several health benefits of music related to mood. For instance, elderly people who played music reported improved self-esteem, less loneliness, and improved independence, as well as stress relief.

In other research, older adults who played the piano experienced less psychological distress, depression, and fatigue when compared with those who didn’t play the piano. Playing an instrument may also boost feelings of empowerment, autonomy, and social cohesion.

Moving to the music

In the aforementioned review article, Dr. Shipman highlighted that musical training improved movement quality in those recovering from stroke by changing the organization of the sensorimotor cortex. Furthermore, piano playing can improve manual dexterity, finger movement coordination, and function of the upper extremities.

In other research, those with osteoarthritis experienced better finger strength, dexterity, and range of motion, as well decreased arthritic pain after playing a keyboard for 30 minutes a day, 4 days a week, for 4 weeks. The participants enjoyed the experience, to boot.

The authors noted that improvements in hand dexterity could lead to improved activities of daily living such as using a remote control or buttoning a shirt.

Musicians hear loud and clear

Results published in the Journal of Neuroscience suggested that musicians have improved binaural hearing, which involves the integration and analysis of incoming sounds from both ears. This advantage boosts hearing in complex (ie, noisy) settings.

In the study, researchers recorded auditory brainstem responses in young adult musicians vs non-musicians. When tested with one ear, there was no musician advantage to hearing the sound. But when the stimulus was tested with both ears, musicians exhibited faster neuronal timing and more consistent results. In addition, improved processing in both ears by musicians was linked to better speech-in-noise perception.

The authors offered a nuanced hypothesis explaining their results.

“Experience-related changes in subcortical binaural hearing structures may stem, at least in part, from the structural and functional organization of the auditory cortex that continues into adolescence via top-down modulation of neuronal response properties. In fact, deactivating descending inputs to inferior colliculus prevents sound localization using binaural hearing cues, evident in conditions where the balance in hearing between the two ears has been experimentally altered,” they wrote.

Music soothes trauma

In the Federal Practitioner article, Dr. Shipman also highlighted the benefits of music therapy in veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. Veterans who were provided free guitars and weekly music lessons (individual and group) taught by volunteers had decreased depression and improvement in PTSD symptoms, such as night sweats, self-isolation, flashbacks, and depression. The weekly music sessions supported an environment of socialization and shared personal experiences, which facilitated healing.

Music on the mind

Musical overachieving as a child may pay dividends as an adult. In an experimental study published in Neuropsychology, researchers found that in 70 older adults, those with more than 10 years of musical experience performed better on neuropsychological tests of nonverbal memory, naming, and executive processing compared with non-musicians. On regression analysis, the researchers found that years of musical activity, age of acquisition, type of musical training, etc, correlated with cognitive performance.

“There is evidence supporting an association between lifelong cognitive stimulation and increased cognitive reserve that may reduce the likelihood of functional cognitive impairments in advanced age,” the authors wrote. 

“Musical leisure activities, including playing an instrument, listening to music, and creating music, stimulate a variety of cognitive functions and may be informative regarding training induced brain plasticity that may be recruited in advanced age to compensate for age-related cognitive declines,” they explained.

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