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Music as Medicine

Six Health Benefits of Listening to Your Favourite Pieces
May 16, 2024

The first-ever performance of any piece of music is a momentous event, but what makes the TSO’s World Première of Ikiru this June particularly significant is that, even though the work was ultimately written by Métis composer Ian Cusson, it represents the voices of many co-creators as the culmination of our Art of Healing program. Established in partnership with the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), Art of Healing brings together Indigenous composers, TSO musicians, and patients of CAMH’s Shkaabe Makwa—the Centre for First Nations, Inuit, and Métis Wellness—to talk about and experience music over a series of weekly sessions, ultimately leading to the creation of an original composition.

This initiative is just one of the many ways the TSO is harnessing the power of music to promote well-being. And over a series of articles in the weeks and months to come, Noteworthy will explore how the two are intimately connected—beginning with the benefits of listening. 

While it’s well known that studying music, learning to play an instrument, and performing with an ensemble can help one to improve their math and literacy skills, cultivate a strong work ethic, and form social bonds, studies have recently uncovered benefits related to passive engagement with music as well. Here are six examples of how simply listening to your favourite songs and pieces can be good for your health:

1. It boosts contentment and curtails depression

Let’s start with the most obvious benefit. If you choose to listen to music, it’s very likely that you enjoy doing so, and when we take part in things we enjoy, it improves our mood. We don’t need scientific studies to tell us this—but they do anyway! When we hear a piece of music, our brain releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which provides us with a sense of pleasure and reward. This can also help counter depression since the condition is often associated with dopamine deficiency. Further, the more familiar and enjoyable the music, the more dopamine is released—which is one of the reasons the TSO regularly performs the beloved gems of the classical repertoire alongside new creations.

2. It reduces stress and lowers blood pressure and heart rate

Stress is an unfortunate reality of modern life, and it can negatively affect both our mental and physical health when it lingers. But listening to music can help by reducing the levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) in our bodies, slowing our heart rate, and lowering our blood pressure. One caveat to this, however, is that the song or composition needs to be fairly relaxing. In other words, if you’re feeling overly stressed, you might want to skip that performance of Carmina Burana and instead opt for the calm, uplifting chamber music that TSO musicians have performed as part of Princess Margaret Cancer Centre’s virtual Music in the Atrium program.

3. It improves cognitive function and facilitates repair

For some students, having music on in the background while studying has been shown to improve academic performance by facilitating relaxation and concentration. But music also has the remarkable ability to repair and even rewire neural pathways: It can help stroke patients regain their cognitive function and motor control more efficiently. And it can improve the memories of those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, provided that the music is personally meaningful to the patient. This is why we’re thrilled to have the Alzheimer Society Peel (ASP) as a partner of our TSOUND Connections program providing live and virtual performances to seniors in care.

4. It mitigates physical pain

We all know that listening to music can be emotionally soothing, and researchers have now discovered that, in specific contexts, the act can be physically soothing as well. In the journal Music and Medicine, the results of a study on post-operative pain perception in more than 30 young patients showed that combining standard care after a surgical procedure with music therapy helped to manage the children’s pain more effectively. A similar study with adult patients saw the same outcome, and the participants required less pain medication thanks to the mitigating effect of the music.

5. It optimizes exercise

When was the last time you worked out in silence? Probably never. Music and exercise are the perfect partners—but energetic tunes are more than simply motivating. In fact, working out with high-tempo music makes that run and those reps feel a little easier to accomplish than exercising without. This is reason enough to put together a gym playlist, but here’s another: because people feel less exertion, they’re able to exercise for a longer period of time, maximizing the physical benefits of breaking a sweat.

6. It creates a sense of community and social connection

Humans are social animals. We thrive when we belong to a community, and interpersonal connection even lengthens our lives. Sometimes, though, we find ourselves isolated for one reason or another, which can take a toll on our mental and physical health. Fortunately, appreciating music along with other people causes the brain to release endorphins—chemicals that increase our sense of wellbeing. So attending a live performance like a TSO concert can provide a much-needed communal experience (the circular shape of the Roy Thomson Hall lobby promotes interaction as well). And if you’re unable to travel, a virtual performance can still help you to connect with your fellow music lovers online. TSOUND Connections was created precisely for this reason during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so were our TSO Live Streams.