Music Sets Beat for Heart and Lungs

 by Luciano Bernardi, MD

Some people love classical music, others prefer country — but regardless of our individual preferences, our bodies will respond to music in the same way. So much so, in fact, that new research from Italy demonstrates that music affects cardiovascular functioning and breathing in such a predictable way it may someday be used as a medical tool.

We’re all familiar with how music can impact our emotions, whether energizing or soothing. Research has also established that music can be used to elicit a relaxation response useful for health purposes, for example for preoperative patients and others under stress. Now this study finds that the physiological responses music triggers were virtually identical for all people in the study group.

Research Notes

 The Italian study included 24 healthy participants, half of whom were experienced choir singers, and the rest with no music training at all. Participants listened in random order to short selections from five classical compositions, including Verdi’s operatic aria “Nessun dorma” from Turandot and the orchestral adagio from Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” (Symphony No. 9 in D minor). Although the participants said they had no particular emotional response or preference for any of the music selections, they all showed similar subconscious autonomic response, which also corresponded to the compositions both in degree and timing. For example, crescendos or swelling of the music induced skin vasoconstriction and increases in blood pressure and heart rates… and, in a more complex response, participants synchronized modulation of the cardiovascular system (through naturally occurring fluctuations in arterial pressure) with the rhythm of the music. Where other researchers have accomplished this with yoga and prayer, this study achieved success by playing certain pieces of music.

 When I contacted the lead author of the study, Luciano Bernardi, MD, of Pavia University in Pavia, Italy, he told me that the study shows that the physiological effects of music are predictable. For instance, he says, blood pressure “tends to follow the musical profile,” dropping with slow meditative music and increasing at faster tempi. This provides a better understanding of how music works to affect the body and thus the role it could eventually fill therapeutically, Dr. Bernardi said. So it appears that we now have yet another instrument with which doctors can practice “the art” of medicine.


Luciano Bernardi, MD, professor of internal medicine, Pavia University, Pavia, Italy.