As I discussed in Music as Medicine, the stress-reducing effects of music appear to extend throughout the clinical spectrum—even to the critically ill, intubated in an intensive care unit. Those listening to Mozart through headphones cut stress hormones like adrenaline in half compared to those with headphones playing nothing, which resulted in a lower mean arterial blood pressure. But are all types of music just as relaxing?
Researchers compared the effects of Mozart, Pearl Jam, and Enya on normal, healthy subjects. After listening to Mozart for 15 minutes, people reported a significant reduction in tension. With new age music, they also felt a reduction in tension, as well as greater relaxation and less hostility, but they reported significant reductions in mental clarity and vigor. After listening to grunge rock, people said they felt more hostile, tired, sad, and tense, with reductions in caring, relaxation, clarity, and vigor. But these were subjective measures—asking people how they felt. What about objective measures?
We also have data on techno. After 30 minutes of classical music, the stress hormone cortisol significantly dropped in the research subjects. But if instead of listening to Beethoven’s Symphony no. 6, Opera 68, they listened to Cyber Trip, Techno Shock, or Techno Magnetiko, their stress hormone levels went up. Endorphin levels also went up, which may make you think, “Oh that’s nice,” until you realize that endorphins are our body’s natural painkillers—they go up after a variety of aversive stimuli, like getting burned or prodded.
These results may just be a function of the music’s tempo. The research shows that people get the same bump in breathing and blood pressure from listening to fast classical music like Vivaldi’s Presto, which was found to be as stimulating, or even more so, than the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
What about heavy metal music? Researchers randomly assigned participants to self-selected music, classical, heavy metal or silence. “Listening to self-selected and classical music produced increased feelings of relaxation as well as sitting in silence, but not for the heavy metal condition.” Compared to relaxing and pleasant Renaissance music, exposure to arousing and “unpleasant” heavy metal causes a heightened amylase response in men. Amylase is an enzyme in our saliva that digests starch. When we go into fight or flight mode, we start immediately churning out the enzyme to provide sugars for quick energy. So, you get a spike in amylase when you go skydiving, if you’re dunked into cold water, or… if you make a guy listen to heavy metal for ten minutes. With all that extra enzyme, if he’s eating bread while banging his head, he can end up digesting it better!
Metal is more likely to cause the medical community indigestion, though. Although the American Medical Association’s Group on Science and Technology admits there’s “no evidence that this music has any deleterious effect on the behavior of adolescents,” that doesn’t stop them from suggesting there’s anecdotal evidence that those who identify with such bands as Slayer and Metallica may be at risk for drug abuse or even “participation in satanic activities.” In response, one doctor wrote to the medical journal to reply: “for every teenager who commits suicide or some crime under the influence of heavy metal music, there are dozens of white-collar criminals engaged in such activities as insider trading, savings and loan fraud, [and] government corruption….” Maybe we should instead be blaming Bach or Barry Manilow.
Michael Greger, M.D.
PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live, year-in-review presentations—2015: Food as Medicine: Preventing and Treating the Most Dreaded Diseases with Diet, and my latest, 2016: How Not to Die: The Role of Diet in Preventing, Arresting, and Reversing Our Top 15 Killers.