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Can music affect our (and animals’) health?

Whenever I was tempted to lecture my children as they were growing up on the corrupting lyrics of the rock music they were listening to, I thought of Bing Crosby.

My grandfather (according to my mother) had been horrified by the “suggestive” crooning of Crosby during the 1930s, and banned his music from their home.

Hard to believe that anybody ever thought Crosby, the do-gooder main character of both “White Christmas” and “Holiday Inn,” could corrupt youth.

Rock music and suicide
Rock music and its perceived potential for leading young people astray (or, more precisely, to engage in self-destructive behavior) was among the topics discussed in the introductory article in December’s special music issue of The Psychologist, the official journal of the British Psychological Society.

In the article, psychologists Adrian North and David Hargreaves address three health-related implications of music. One is the assumption that certain music lyrics can cause suicide and other self-injurious acts.

Yes, write North and Hargreaves, some (but not all) studies “have found that fans of rock and rap were more likely than others to consider suicide and to self-harm.” But other research, they note, “is less suggestive of a link.” More likely, the two men argue, listening to certain rock music is a reflection, not a cause, of negative thoughts.

Furthermore, researchers have found that merely describing a song as “suicide-inducing” may lead young people to perceive it as such.

In other words, adults who label a song as having pro-suicide lyrics may actually be throwing fire on the problem they’re hoping to put out.

Other research, the authors add, “shows that the correlation between suicidal tendencies and an interest in rock is mediated by family background and self-esteem, which raises the issue of which of the latter is the better predictor of the former.”

I guess that means that we parents should worry less about rock’s role in our children’s lives and more about our own.

A pain-reliever?
North and Hargreaves’ article also includes a quick and interesting review of studies that have demonstrated music’s ability to reduce pain and stress and, perhaps, strengthen the immune system.

“Arguably the largest single body of literature concerns the impact of music on chronic pain, pain experienced during and after treatment, and pain experienced specifically by cancer patients and those undergoing palliative care,” the authors report.

How does music mediate pain? Perhaps, says North and Hargreaves, by “distracting the patient’s attention from it and/or by increasing their perceived control over the pain (since if patients believe that they have access to music as a means of pain control, then this belief itself decreases the aversiveness of pain).”

Animals’ responses
The third focus of this article covered unfamiliar ground (to me). It reports on the “growing body of evidence” concerning music and animal welfare. Write North and Hargreaves:

Perhaps the clearest example is provided by Wells et al. (2002), who played classical music, heavy metal music, pop music, human conversation, and a control to 50 dogs housed in an animal rescue shelter. The classical music was arguably the most soothing, and it is interesting that it led to the dogs spending more time resting, more time quiet, and less time standing. In contrast, arguably the least soothing music, heavy metal, led to more time barking.

Apparently, dairy cows also yield more milk when listening to slow rather than fast music, and rats heal from wounds less quickly when exposed to stress-inducing rock music. 

North and Hargreaves don’t seem at all surprised by these findings. “Is there really much difference between a tired human listening to a soothing song on the car stereo during the drive home, and a dog in a shelter being calmed by background classical music?” they ask.

I wonder if dogs like Bing Crosby?

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