Clear benefits for stroke patients who listen to their favorite music

Let the Music Take You

Anyone who’s ever heard Pavarotti blow the doors off a concert hall with the stunning conclusion of Puccini’s Nessun Dorma knows that opera music has the ability to move the heart. (And in Pavarotti’s case, move it to another zip code.)

In a new study from (where else?) Italy, researchers examined the effects that different types of opera and classical music have on cardiovascular measures.

As reported by the BBC, when 24 healthy subjects were monitored while listening to a random selection of classical pieces, researchers noted clear physical changes. Fast tempo prompted increased blood pressure and faster breathing and heart rates. Slower tempo lowered blood pressure and brought down heart and breathing rates.

Their conclusion: Quiet, soothing music is actually NOT the best music for the heart. Music that modulates between slower and faster tempos, as well as lower and higher volumes (something like Nessun Dorma, for instance), has the most advantageous effects on heart rate and general circulation.

But here’s where it gets interesting…

Listening time

Commenting on the Italian study, Diana Greenman (who heads up a UK charity that brings live music to hospitals and hospices) told the BBC: “I hear time and again of stroke patients who suddenly are able to move in time to the music after previously being paralyzed.”

Now THAT’S pretty amazing!

So I followed a link in the BBC piece to a 2008 article that detailed a remarkable study from the University of Helsinki.

Researchers recruited 60 stroke patients, and each began their participation as soon as possible after their stroke. Divided into three groups, some patients listened to whatever music they liked, some patients listened to audio books, and some patients had no specific listening plan. Meanwhile, all subjects received standard protocols for stroke rehabilitation.

After three months, testing showed that focused attention and mental operation abilities improved by 17 percent in the music group, but didn’t improve at all in the other two groups. Verbal memory scores were even more impressive: Music group: 60 percent improvement. Audio books group: 18 percent. Non-listening group: 29 percent.

Subjects in the music group also tended to be less confused and less depressed than subjects in the other two groups.

Lead researcher of the study told the BBC that in the weeks after a stroke, patients are typically inactive much of the time, providing a perfect music-listening opportunity.

No downside

At the end of the BBC article, several readers submitted comments that offer real-life confirmation of the study results.

For one man, a motorcycle accident prompted brain bleeding followed by a stroke that left him unable to move one side of his body and unable to speak. But when the radio was on he could sing along with familiar songs.

A woman in India suffered a severe stroke that left her with a “major speech deficit” and limited vocabulary. But her daughter reports that she can recall and sing some of her favorite songs.

One stroke expert told the BBC that more research is needed before widespread use of music as therapy can be recommended for stroke victims. This caution is pretty laughable unless someone can produce any evidence at all of a single adverse side effect of music (with the possible exception of getting the Macarena song stuck in your brain for a full afternoon).

“Opera ‘is Music for the Heart’” BBC, 6/22/09,
“Music ‘Can Aid Stroke Recovery’” BBC, 2/20/08,