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Making Music Soothes Stress

Playing with a music machine turns off the body's stress machine, researchers say.

Some 300 years ago, British dramatist William Congreve noted music has charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or to bend a knotted oak. Now researchers have put the first of these three claims to the test.

To create as much savagery as possible within people's breasts, Barry Bittman, MD, of the Body-Mind Wellness Center in Meadville, Penn, and colleagues devised a fiendish plan. They got 32 volunteers to spend an hour trying — individually — to solve a nearly impossible jigsaw puzzle. They told the volunteers that whoever did best would get $50. And they tormented them by telling them that others were doing much better, and by reminding them — more and more often — that time was running out.

As if that weren't enough, the volunteers gave blood. This was done to test the blood for the activity of 45 stress-related genes. Sure enough, the genes fired like crazy — although in different patterns for different individuals.

But the study was just beginning. Now Bittman's team had two of the volunteers continue work on the puzzle. Two others got to read magazines and relax as best they could. The rest participated in what the researchers call a novel recreational music-making program. The program, the authors note, emphasizes "personal expression, group support, and quality-of-life enhancement rather than mastery and performance."

At the heart of the music program, called the Clavinova Connection, is a computerized keyboard instrument called the Clavinova, made by Yamaha, which helped fund the study.

After participating in the Clavinova Connection — that is, after listening to "Arrival Song," participating in the "Mind-Body Wellness Warm-up," thumping along with the "Drum Circle," playing an "Improvisation," discussing "Musical Insight," playing the "Song of the Day," recapping with the "Mind-Body Wellness Cool-Down," having a "Reflection" discussion, and hearing a "Farewell Song" — participants once again had their blood tested for stress-gene activity.

Responses differed widely from person to person. However, Bittman and colleagues report, there was "reversal" in 19 of the 45 markers for stress genes. Those who just sat in the waiting room and read reversed only six of these markers. And those who — bitterly, one supposes — had to continue with the frustrating puzzle had no gene-stress-marker reversal at all.

"While we were challenged at first by such a wide range of responses, closer examination of the data revealed what we eventually termed individualized genomic stress induction signatures," Bittman says, in a news release. "With ongoing research, recreational music-making could potentially serve as a rational stress-reduction activity along with other lifestyle strategies that include healthy nutrition and exercise."

The study appears in the February issue of Medical Science Monitor.

Sources: Bittman, B. Medical Science Monitor, February 2005; vol 11. News release, Giles Communications.

By Daniel J. DeNoon
Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD
© 2005, WebMD Inc. All rights reserved

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