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Listening to Music May Be Good for Heart Health

A Greek study found classical music fans are particularly prone to its positive physiological effects.
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(Photo: fotografos/Shutterstock)

(Photo: fotografos/Shutterstock)

There are many ways of reducing your risk of a heart attack. A healthy diet. Regular exercise. And don’t forget your daily dose of Dylan or Debussy.

A newly published, small-scale study from Greece finds listening to either classical or rock music positively impacts two important predictors of cardiovascular risk. The effects are particularly pronounced for classical music fans, who, in the study, had a more robust physiological response to music of either genre.

“These findings may have important implications, extending the spectrum of lifestyle modifications that can ameliorate arterial function,” a research team led by cardiologist Charalambos Vlachopoulos of Athens Medical School writes in the journal Atherosclerosis. “Listening to music should be encouraged in everyday activities.”

"This is the first study, to the best of our knowledge, to demonstrate the music, both classical and rock, decreases aortic stiffness and wave reflections."

The pulse waves of one’s circulatory system and the rigidity of one’s arteries are related but independent predictors of morbidity and mortality. Essentially, the stiffer one’s blood vessel walls become, the greater the pulse pressure, and the harder the heart has to work to pump blood into the arteries. This can lead to higher blood pressure and an increased strain on the heart.

“Just a brief period of mental stress can have an enduring effect on arterial stiffness,” Vlachopoulos and his colleagues warn. But in this study, they examined the opposite: the positive emotional stimulation of music.

The participants, described as “20 healthy individuals,” visited the lab three times. On each occasion, baseline measurements of aortic stiffness and pulse wave reflections were taken following a half-hour rest period.

They then either listened to a half-hour of classical music (primarily excerpts from J.S. Bach’s Orchestral Suites); a half-hour of rock (including tracks by Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Green Day); or a similar period of silence. The cardiovascular measurements were again taken immediately afterwards, and then again after 30 more minutes had passed.

The key result: both indicators were lower after participants listened to either genre of music.

“This is the first study, to the best of our knowledge, to demonstrate the music, both classical and rock, decreases aortic stiffness and wave reflections,” the researchers write. “Effect on aortic stiffness lasts for as long as music is listened to, while music has a more sustained effect (for at least 30 minutes more) for wave reflections.”

When it came to pulse waves, classical music fans responded more to the classical playlist and rock fans to the rock compilation. While that makes sense, the results also contained a surprise: The velocity of these waves was reduced more for classical aficionados, whether they were listening to classical or rock.

“People who like classical music may be more prone to its effects, irrespective of the genre,” the researchers conclude.

More research will be needed to confirm these results. But they intriguingly suggest that music not only touches the heart—it also helps it function. The admonition "keep the beat" may have multiple meanings.

Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.