A large scale review covering over 400 scientific papers on the topic of the neurochemistry of music has found that music may be better than prescription medications for some issues and has broad benefits for the body and mind.

The research, group led by Prof. Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University's Psychology Department, scoured hundreds of scientific papers linking music to changes in physiology and how the body worked. Two particular areas of benefit were found: in the immune system and in mental state reducing stress.

"We've found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics," says Dr. Levitin. "But even more importantly, we were able to document the neurochemical mechanisms by which music has an effect in four domains: management of mood, stress, immunity, and as an aid to social bonding."

Here are some highlights from the review:

  • Listening to music was better than prescription medications in reducing stress before surgery.
  • People who listened to music had an increase in their levels of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), a type of antibody that is present at mucosal surfaces (digestive tract, lungs, etc.) and helps to prevent infections.
  • Music listeners had higher numbers of an immune cell type called "natural killer cells," whose job it is to attack bacteria, infected cells, and cancerous cells.
  • Listening to music reduced levels of cortisol in the body. Cortisol is a stress hormone that has many physiological effects, one of which has a role in promoting obesity. 

The researchers suggested that future studies of music and mind could reveal much more about how our bodies work. They raised a few questions for additional study:

  • What are the benefits of listening versus playing music? 
  • Do personality traits, genetic factors, or biological influences have any affect on an individuals' responses to music? 
  • What is the role of oxytocin, the 'love drug" that is released by the brain and involved in social recognition, pair bonding, anxiety, and maternal behaviors?

The comprehensive review was published in the journal Trends in Cognitive Science.