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Musical Notes on Healing

Mozart promotes health as well as happiness.

The effervescence of Mozart’s piano sonatas delights the ear. Evidence now suggests these works may also soothe the psyche—and even support healing. A recent study by Claudius Conrad, a senior surgical resident at Massachusetts General Hospital, randomized postsurgical critically ill intensive-care patients and had them listen to recordings of gentle Mozart piano music for one hour, during which their sedation was lifted. The control group was not exposed to music, but wore headphones to keep the research team and nursing staff blinded as to whether music was being played.

When Conrad and his colleagues tested the patients, they found that classical music reduced blood pressure and heart rate, lowered stress-hormone levels, and reduced the need for sedatives. Another finding was more surprising: The patients’ levels of pituitary growth hormone rose by 50 percent, while levels of interleukin-6, which increases in response to stress, dropped significantly. These changes illustrate the potential of music to encourage relaxation and modulate immunity.

Conrad is well positioned to study the effects of music on health. A concert pianist who trained at conservatories in Bavaria, Germany, he holds not only a medical degree and a doctorate in stem cell biology, but a doctorate in music philosophy as well. His experiences have spurred research into music’s effects on another population: surgeons. In a 2009 study, Conrad tested eight expert surgeons on their speed and accuracy while performing computer-simulated laparoscopic procedures and listening to Mozart, to silence, or to the cacophony of simultaneous German folk music and so-called death metal. He found that, compared with silence, the discordant music slowed the surgeons’ speed in completing their tasks. Classical music, however, seemed to improve their efficiency.

Like many surgeons, Conrad provides his own soundtrack for the operating room. While his playlist contains a few surprises—European techno rap, anyone?—his favorites remain classical pieces. Surgery, he explains, is not unlike a symphony.

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