About two years ago, my doctor diagnosed me with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and sent me in for a gallium scan to check for tumors. The test required me to be enclosed and perfectly still-no sneezing, coughing, or scratching allowed-for nearly two hours. Part of me wanted to scream and run, but the bass line and melody of my favorite Spearhead tune pouring into my headset ensured that I stayed put.
Music's soothing power saw me through more tests and a successful regimen of chemotherapy. It turns out this calming effect wasn't just in my head: Widely used technologies like Functional MRIs (fMRI) show that listening to music or playing an instrument stimulates our minds in ways we're only beginning to understand. "Rhythm, pitch, and melody are all processed in different parts of the brain," says Daniel Levitin, Ph.D., professor of psychology and music at McGill University in Montreal and author of This Is Your Brain on Music (Dutton, 2006). Music, he says, activates the brain's pleasure centers, which may help lower blood pressure; improve sleep; and reduce pain, depression, and anxiety.
A 2006 Temple University study found that patients who played CDs during a colonoscopy needed less antianxiety medication-about a full dose less-than a control group. In a Case Western Reserve University study also published last year, adults with chronic joint and disc pain who listened to music for an hour a day reported 12 percent to 21 percent less pain. In both studies, the type of music didn't appear to affect results.
As for making music, it has the power to improve your concentration and confidence. "Learning to play an instrument develops regions in the brain that help you focus," says Levitin. Abby Fleischer, a 34-year-old first-grade teacher in Brooklyn who started drumming a few years ago, can attest to that. "It keeps me learning and thinking," she says. Making music can also ease stress, according to a 2004 study of 75 first-year nursing students. For Fleischer, the drummer, it's even made her stronger. "I've noticed that my biceps are getting bigger," she says proudly.