Music to make your heart sing

18 November 2008


Listening to your favourite, feel-good music might not only put you in a great mood but it could also be good for your heart. 

Researchers from the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore in the United States have shown for the first time that the emotions associated with listening to joyous music has a beneficial effect on blood vessels leading to improved blood flow, in a similar way that laughter has already been shown to be good for us. 

The study, which was presented at the Scientific Sessions of the American Heart Association in New Orleans this week, involved ten healthy volunteers who were tested with four different types of music that they were played for half an hour each at a time. The volunteers were asked to bring along music they really liked and made them feel happy and apparently most of them chose country music. They were also played music that they didn't like and made them feel anxious: most of them chose heavy metal music. Thirdly they were played music designed to be relaxing and in a fourth session they were played videotapes intended to make the volunteers laugh.  

To measure the effect of music on blood vessels, the researchers measured something called flow-mediated dilation. This essentially determines how the lining of blood cells called the endothelium responds to various different stimuli (from things like exercise and emotions) and it shows how well blood is being delivered to the tissues of the body. 

Measuring the flow-mediated dilation involves restricting blood flow briefly along an artery in the upper arm using a cuff, then releasing it and using an ultrasound to measure how the blood vessels respond to the sudden increase in blood flow. And that gives you a percentage increase or decrease in the diameter of blood vessels. 

The researchers found that when the volunteers listened to their happy music, their blood vessels expanded by around 26%. A similar, but smaller effect happened when they listened to relaxing music. The opposite happened when they were played the unhappy, anxiety-inducing music with the blood vessels constricting by around 6%. And as you might have guessed, opening up the blood vessels is for many reasons Heartsgood for us. 

And interesting point is that the effect of playing funny videos to make the volunteers laugh caused an increase of 19% in blood vessel diameter which is less than with happy music. But, we don't know whether the volunteers did actually find the tapes funny since we do all have a different sense of humour, while they did choose the music as being tracks they particularly liked. 

Researchers don't really know what is causing these effects but think it is most probably linked to the release of endorphins: those pleasure chemicals in the brain. And it isn't that country music will work for everyone, it depends on what music you like as we are, after all, all different. 

Exactly how the emotional response of listening to music affects the rest of our bodies remains something of a mystery. But it certainly suggests that it could well be good for us all to spend some of our daily lives listening to our favourite music.


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