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Siren song, under the spell:extolling the virtues of music

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Photo Credit: fiddling, originally uploaded by jamie_marie.

As illustrated in Homer’s Odyssey, the power of music is formidable. Music often creates a soundtrack to our lives. The matrix of our personal history is interwoven with specific songs that stand out like constellations in our memories. There is no question of the emotive, entertaining, nostalgic, intellectual, and mood-creating properties of music. However, music has also been a long-standing therapeutic modality to facilitate healing. From the drumming healers of India to the five tonal traditional healing music of the Sufi’s, music is one of the oldest healing arts. The first accounts of the influence of music on breathing, BP, and muscular activity were documented in the Renaissance (Munro and Mount, 1978).

Music can act as an anxiolytic in that it can help achieve a deep state of relaxation; it can also lower blood pressure, heart rate and correct cardiac arrhythmias. Music exerts its effects via the process of entrainment. Entrainment is the synchronization of body rhythms (heart rate, respiratory rate) with those of a musical selection or with the rhythms of vibrating objects around it. For example, babies in neonatal units have been known to synchronize their natural rhythms with those generated by an adjacent computer monitor increasing or decreasing their heart rates to match the monitor’s beeps. Entrainment is a process by which 2 objects vibrating at similar frequencies will tend to interact and come into sync, thereby resonating at the same frequency. Musical selections with slow flowing rhythms that replicate pulses of 60-80 beats per minute are characteristic of music for relaxation. This type of music can slow down a racing heart and synchronize it with the slower rhythms.

Through entrainment, the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (responsible for the flight or fight stress response) is decreased resulting in a dampening of CNS arousal. This leads to decreased sympathetic activity, altered states of consciousness, and decreased neuromuscular arousal. Physiologically this is manifested by a decrease in heart rate, decrease in respiration rate, and decrease in metabolic rate, decreased oxygen consumption, decreased epinephrine levels, decreased skeletal muscle tension, decreased blood pressure, and decreased sweat gland activity. Music can also provide an alternative focus and draw attention away from an unpleasant situation or sensation.

Certain music is more anxiety reducing than others. What are the characteristics of anxiolytic music? Usually music with simple repetitive rhythms, predictable dynamics, low pitch, slow tempo, string composition, no percussive instruments, consonance of harmony, instrumental and vocal timbre. Faster music tends to heighten the physiological response associated with stress. That being said, music preference has been identified as the most important factor for mediating the beneficial effects of music.


  1. Chlan,L “Effectiveness of Music Therapy Intervention on Relaxation and Anxiety for Patient’s receiving Ventilatory Assistance” Heart and Lung. 1998;27(3):169-176.
  2. Cunningham, MF. Monson B. Bookbinder M. “Introducing A Music Program in the Perioperative Area” AORN Journal. 1997;66(4):674-682.
  3. Hoffman, J. “Tuning in to the Power of Music” RN. 1997;60(6):52-4.
  4. Watkins, G. “ Music Therapy: Proposed Physiological Mechanisms and Clinical Implications” Clinical Nurse Specialist 1997;11(2):43-50.


  JoAnn Misra wrote @ March 20th, 2007 at 3:10 pm

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Dear Neelu,
Thought the article very interesting. I love listening to classical music while reading or relaxing. Some pieces of music really move me so that I feel great. The feeling I get when I hear any Rachmaninov’s work is unexplainable!
I would like Uncle to listen to music more but he being the more pragmatic type just likes to watch CNBC!
Hope you have more articles. Love , Aunty

  The Maestro wrote @ March 30th, 2007 at 10:08 am

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I really like the string versions of these. Listen to the samples.

  neelam wrote @ March 31st, 2007 at 7:18 am

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Hey, thanks for sharing the babyrock link. The songs sound so sweet and diaphanous when stripped down to strings and vibraphones(?).

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