Music Can Make the Heart Beat Faster

MONDAY June 22, 2009 -- Loud music made hearts beat faster and blood pressure go up, while softer passages lowered both heart rates and blood pressure, a new study shows.

It's the latest word on how music affects the cardiovascular system, from researchers at Pavia University in Italy. Their earlier studies found that music with quicker tempos had people breathing faster, with increased heart rate and blood pressure, while slower tempos produced opposite effects.

The findings "increase our understanding of how music could be used in rehabilitative medicine," study author Dr. Luciano Bernardi, a professor of internal medicine at Pavia, said in a statement. The report appears in the June 22 online edition of Circulation.

It's a lesson that already is being put to medical use, said Dr. Michael Miller, director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center, who has done his own research assessing the cardiovascular effects of music.

"The take-home message from this paper is now being employed at many hospitals, including ours," Miller said. "In the cardiovascular unit, we play music that is very soothing and quiet. On a subconscious level, it produces a decrease in blood pressure and heart rate."

The Italian and Maryland studies differ in important aspects. The Pavia researchers played classical music, including selections from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, a Bach cantata, and arias from operas by Puccini and Verdi. They also measured the effects on the cardiovascular systems of two dozen volunteers in their mid-20s, half of whom were trained singers, who listened through headphones.

Readings from electrocardiograms and skin monitors showed that a crescendo, a swelling volume of music, was stimulating, while decrescendos had relaxing effects. The effects were modest but noticeable.

"In our studies, volunteers selected music that made them feel good or feel bad," Miller said. "Our belief is that cardiovascular reactions to music are amplified by emotional responses. Our results were not inconsistent with these findings."

The Italian study results were called "fascinating" by Barry A. Franklin, director of cardiac rehabilitation and exercise laboratories at William Beaumont Hospital in Michigan, and a spokesman for the American Heart Association.

"They were able to see modest changes in all variables," Franklin said. "As a clinician, one who works with people with cardiovascular disease, I ask, can we extrapolate or generalize to clinical populations? I see some potentially very exciting research and clinical applications to people with disabilities, where modest changes could have very significant salutatory effects. If they listen to music through headphones while they exercise, can we get better changes on such measures as oxygen flow and blood pressure?"

The people who Franklin works with now exercise on treadmills or stationary bicycles, without music. "I might implement a small pilot program on these subjects, not at rest but while they exercise," he said. "Are their responses altered by simultaneous music? These are debilitated coronary patients in whom small changes might be important."

"One logical next step would be to encourage interdisciplinary research with relevant clinical populations receiving specific music therapy interventions," said Al Bumanis, a spokesman for the America Music Therapy Association. The effects of music therapy are being tested in people in cardiovascular rehabilitation, brain-injured individuals and premature babies, among others, he said.

Posted: June 2009


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