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Music Reduces Pain—Even in Newborns

A two-day-old is apparently not too young to benefit from listening to the Moonlight Sonata.

The idea that music can be medicinal has long been controversial, in part because promising research has proven difficult to duplicate. But two new studies present compelling evidence that pleasant melodies can reduce physical pain.

A systematic review of previous research finds solid evidence of such an analgesic effect. And a new study finds gentle harmonies can even ease discomfort among newborns.

Together, they provide promising news at a time when a lot of people are in pain, and too many attempts at relief lead to dangerous addictions. It's clearly better to reach for the iPad than for the opiates.

The "umbrella review," published in the journal Early Human Development, analyzed results from 13 previously published papers. While the studies utilized a variety of methods and criteria, their results produced a clear pattern.

"Most of the reviews found a significant effect of music on pain," writes a team led by Colombian researcher Juan Sebastian Martin-Saavedra. It concludes music should be considered "a clinically significant complementary therapy to be used for the management of pain."

Interestingly, the researchers found no significant differences when the music was chosen by the patient rather than by the researcher. This suggests relief does not require listening to one's favorite tunes.

Which is good news for newborns, most of whom have yet to establish a personal playlist. But they too can benefit from the pain-reducing effects of music.

The study featured 80 full-term newborns between the ages of one and three days, all of whom were treated in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of University Hospital in Brescia, Italy. All were subjected to painful medical procedures—specifically the Guthrie Test (in which their heels were pricked to draw blood) and/or antibiotic injections into a muscle.

The infants were randomly assigned to have the procedure done in silence, or while music was playing. For some, the soundtrack was Mozart's "Sonata for Two Pianos"; for others, it was the famous first movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata.

The final group was exposed to the most primal rhythm of all: a heartbeat. In each case, the music began 10 minutes before the procedure and continued for 20 minutes afterwards.

The researchers monitored the infants' heart rate, oxygen saturation level, and apparent level of pain. The latter was assessed using a standard scale that includes changes in breathing patterns, whether they are crying or whimpering, and whether their muscles are rigid or relaxed.

"Musical intervention was associated with a significant decrease in heart rate, improvement in oxygen saturation, and reduction in the perception of pain," writes a research team led by Andrea Rossi. This effect was "evident as early as 10 minutes after the procedure, leading to rapid post-stress recovery, as compared to the control group, with a sustained effect after 10 minutes."

"All the tracks showed comparable effects," the researchers add. This presumably reflects the fact the Mozart and Beethoven piano pieces are both "rich in harmonics and medium-low frequencies, with a regular rhythm, similar to lullabies."

"Music could be an easy-to-use and low-cost way of enriching the environment of neonates," they conclude.

Listening to Mozart won't make babies brilliant, but his sonatas may soothe their suffering.