FRIDAY, Jan. 29, 2010 (HealthDay News) -- The litany of suspected benefits is long: It can soothe infants and adults alike, trigger memories, temper pain, aid sleep and make the heart beat faster or slower. "It," of course, is music.
A growing body of research has been making such suggestions for years. Just why music seems to have these effects, though, remains elusive.
There's a lot to learn, said Robert Zatorre, a professor at McGill University in Montreal, where he studies the topic at the Montreal Neurological Institute. Music has been shown to help with such things as pain and memory, he said, but "we don't know for sure that it does improve our [overall] health."
And though there are some indications that music can affect both the body and the mind, "whether it translates to health benefits is still being studied," Zatorre said.
In one study, Zatorre and his colleagues found that people who rated music they listened to as pleasurable were more likely to report emotional arousal than those who didn't like the music they were listening to. Those findings were published in October in PLoS One.
From the scientists' standpoint, he explained, "it's one thing if people say, 'When I listen to this music, I love it.' But it doesn't tell what's happening with their body." Researchers need to prove that music not only has an effect, but that the effect translates to health benefits long-term, he said.
One question to be answered is whether emotions that are stirred up by music really affect people physiologically, said Dr. Michael Miller, a professor of medicine and director of the Center for Preventive Cardiology at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore.
For instance, Miller said he's found that listening to self-selected joyful music can improve blood flow and perhaps promote vascular health. So, if it calms someone and improves their blood flow, will that translate to fewer heart attacks? "That's yet to be studied," he said.
But in a paper published in the November issue of Medical Hypotheses, Miller suggested the way by which emotions -- such as those triggered when listening to a favorite tune -- might influence the heart.
"Endorphins or endorphin-like compounds are released from the brain in response to pleasurable emotions," he said. "That directly activates the endorphins to release nitric oxide. It's a protective chemical, one of the important chemicals produced by the endothelium [the inner lining of the blood vessels]. It's important in biological and physiological functions -- it causes blood vessels to dilate, it reduces inflammation, it prevents platelets from sticking and cholesterol from being taken up into plaque."
But that might be just part of the story, Miller said. "There are likely to be other effects that have been largely unexplored," he said.
Stress reduction that results from listening to good music might also explain the health benefits, said Aniruddh Patel, a senior fellow at the Neuroscience Institute in San Diego. "Music is known to reduce people's stress and actually have physiological effects on the stress hormone cortisol," he said.
In a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, music was reported to help people who'd had a stroke recover their sight, and Patel said that makes sense.
"The brain is trying to heal itself," he said. "The less stress hormone floating around up there, the better the brain can do its job." That's possibly why it worked, he said.
And as studies continue to find additional benefits from music, scientists continue to investigate the underpinnings.
"We have a trickle of information now about how it works," Patel said. "I think this is a growing area. That trickle is going to become a stream, and that stream is going to become a river."
Until then, Miller's advice is to listen to music you like for 15 to 20 minutes a day -- and to consider it as healthful a practice as exercising regularly and eating healthily.
The American Music Therapy Association has more about music as therapy.