Music is used to regulate mood and arousal in everyday life and to promote physical and psychological health and well-being in clinical settings. However, scientific inquiry into the neurochemical effects of music is still in its infancy. In this review, we evaluate the evidence that music improves health and well-being through the engagement of neurochemical systems for (i) reward, motivation, and pleasure; (ii) stress and arousal; (iii) immunity; and (iv) social affiliation. We discuss the limitations of these studies and outline novel approaches for integration of conceptual and technological advances from the fields of music cognition and social neuroscience into studies of the neurochemistry of music.
Music is one of a small set of human cultural universals, evoking a wide range of emotions, from exhilaration to relaxation, joy to sadness, fear to comfort, and even combinations of these. Many people use music to regulate mood and arousal, much as they use caffeine or alcohol. Neurosurgeons use it to enhance concentration, armies to coordinate movements and increase cooperation, workers to improve attention and vigilance, and athletes to increase stamina and motivation.
The notion that ‘music is medicine’ has roots that extend deep into human history through healing rituals practiced in pre-industrial, tribal-based societies. In contemporary society, music continues to be used to promote health and well-being in clinical settings, such as for pain management, relaxation, psychotherapy, and personal growth. Although much of this clinical use of music is based on ad hoc or unproven methods, an emerging body of literature addresses evidence-based music interventions through peer-reviewed scientific experiments. In this review, we examine the scientific evidence supporting claims that music influences health through neurochemical changes in the following four domains:
(i) reward, motivation and pleasure
(ii) stress and arousal
(iv) social affiliation.
These domains parallel, respectively, the known neurochemical systems of
(i) dopamine and opioids
(ii) cortisol, corticotrophin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH)
(iii) serotonin and the peptide derivatives of proopiomelanocortin (POMC), including alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone and beta-endorphin
Although the evidence is often weak or indirect and all studies suffer from important limitations, the reviewed evidence does provide preliminary support for the claim that neurochemical changes mediate the influence of music on health.