The playlist of evidence that music has a special role in our lives and health has been getting longer in the past few months.
Certainly, not everyone likes the same music, and music therapy tries to respect that. But one recent study shows that the brains of most people listening to the same music respond in the same way.
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A brain-imaging study done at Stanford University used classical music by a somewhat obscure 18th-century English composer named William Boyce to measure how 17 people in their late teens and 20s responded. All were right-handed (the rarer lefty brain may have a different landscape) and had little or no musical training and no knowledge of Boyce's work.
For more than nine minutes, each person listened to sound samples containing some elements similar to music -- rhythm and off-key tones -- as well as actual segments of Boyce's symphonies. The imaging showed that several auditory structures in the midbrain and thalamus showed significant synchronization with the music, but little or no response to the pseudo-music.
The study, published online in the European Journal of Neuroscience, showed that different structures seemed active in tracking music over shorter and longer stretches, and the music also activated planning centers for motor skills, setting the brain up to guide things like singing, dancing and clapping.
Another study found new evidence for music's soothing effects in hospital intensive-care units.
Researchers at Ohio State University reported that patients on mechanical ventilators, given the option to listen to music from a personalized playlist, were able to lower their self-assessed anxiety levels by an average of 36 percent. The number of sedative doses and the amount of sedation fell by similar amounts after five days.
The researchers studied 373 patients in several Minneapolis-St. Paul-area hospital ICUs. A third received music therapy, with a therapist compiling a playlist of each patient's favorite recordings to continuously loop on a bedside CD player. A third of the patients were offered noise-canceling headphones to put on whenever they wished. The final third, the control group, received standard care.
While those using the noise-canceling headphones showed some improvement, those who heard music had a much stronger effect. Researchers said the music seemed to allow patients to focus on something more pleasant and lower anxiety about their treatment, while helping to reduce the disorientation and psychological effects common with prolonged sedation and inability to speak because of the respirator.
On a much smaller scale, a Japanese study published in March showed that the responses of the immune systems of mice to music could reduce their rejection of heart transplants. They showed that both opera and classical music could increase the time before transplanted organs failed, but that exposing them to single-frequency monotones or New Age music provided no benefit.
Many other studies in recent years have shown that different types of music encourage different outcomes in humans. Soothing tunes tend to more effectively address conditions such as pain, stress and sleeplessness, while more upbeat tunes can boost mood and improve mobility.
Several recent consumer and psychological studies have confirmed that we go for somber, sad music when we've experienced a loss, but turn to happier, more upbeat music when we're actively trying to become more positive.