Give Mozart a Break! How to Lower Blood Pressure With Music

A small blood pressure study published just this month (September 2008) by Seattle University is generating a large amount of attention. The research into the effects of music and relaxation should provide food for thought in a fresh and productive direction. Instead, the study is being widely misreported, focusing on insignigicant details with an attitude that damns with faint praise.

In the study, 41 elderly people with high blood pressure listened to either Mozart or a “guided-relaxation” program for 12 minutes a day, three times a week for four months. The Mozart music was not specified but the relaxation CD included a background of ocean waves along with a calming voice and guided breathing exercises.

The average systolic blood pressure of the Mozart group dropped by 7 points while the average reduction in the guided-relaxation group was 9 points systolic. Diastolic blood pressure was not as much affected but medical experts tend to look at systolic pressure as the more important health factor.

Mozart versus “New Age”?

Many of the reports chose to focus on the slightly larger reductions of the guided-relaxation group, painting Mozart the “loser” as in some absurd battle of the bands. This misses the point entirely. The research was not a competition to determine the “winning” style of relaxation – as if 2 points among such a tiny sample has any significance anyway.

In fact, the study has a number of shortcomings including:

  • A statistically insignificant number of participants (only 21 in the Mozart group and 20 in the guided relaxation group). The results of such a small group cannot be projected on to millions of hypertension sufferers.
  • The elderly are not a representative sample of those suffering from high blood pressure (the largest group of hypertensives are babyboomers and its prevalence among the young is increasing rapidly).
  • Why was participation limited to only 12 minutes a day, three times a week? On the basis of previous research, the modest results of this study were entirely predictable. A second recent study in Italy obtained far better results with participants that listened to slow, soothing music for a half hour daily.
  • Which pieces of Mozart’s music were used? The music of Mozart is a huge body of work that covers a full range of moods and tempos, often in the same composition. Furthermore, much of it was never intended to be relaxing. This is not a mute point as previous research has proved the obvious: fast tempo music increases blood pressure while slow tempo music reduces it.

So it’s difficult to evaluate this part of the study’s results without knowing the specific music used. What is more certain is that all or most music meeting the right criteria is capable of having a pronounced effect on blood pressure.

Participants in the Italian study listened to western classical, Celtic or Indian raga music and the conclusion was that any style of music of a slow and soothing nature can be effective at reducing blood pressure.

It’s all in the breathing…

Finally, the limitations noted above pale in significance when compared to the major complaint: the guided relaxation group also participated in breathing exercises. This is one of, if not the, major contributing factor to their results and yet it was reported almost as an aside. The study more  accurately reflects the effects of relaxation music with breathing compared to those of just listening to Mozart.

There is a large body of research along with years of real-life practice showing that what is now commonly called slow-breathing is capable of significantly reducing high blood pressure. Even more important, the effects of slow breathing are cumulative and long-lasting, unlike those of relaxation alone, which tend to be only temporary.

Double your pleasure: breathing with music

But if you really want to see results you have to combine the two: breathing and music. A biofeedback device called the Resperate uses a synthesizer to generate musical tones that guide the user’s breathing in a therapeutic way. They recommend using the device a minimum of 15 minutes a day, 3 or 4 times a week, although results improve with up to daily use.

There are numerous clinical trials documenting the effectiveness of slow breathing. These are double-blind, randomized trials – the same standard as used in drugs testing – published in peer-reviewed medical journals.

In trials, the method has achieved dramatic results with the top 10% of reductions averaging 36 points sysolic and 20 points diastolic. Another impressive result is a response rate of 82% in a group of “resistant hypertensives”, people who had failed to respond to other forms of treatment.

Ultimate relaxation: slow breathing with music

A newer method called “slow breathing with music”,  is closer in spirit to the methods attempted by the Seattle study. This method uses the same clinically proven breathing methods as used by the Resperate but in a way that’s almost the reverse: using a synthesized guided breathing track combined with real music.

Those using slow breathing with music say that they find real music more relaxing and enjoyable, which increases use as well as, they claim, their results. What is not in doubt is the number of people getting remarkable results with this method. Slow breathing with music comes in two styles: a modern form of mood music called ambient and classical (including some carefully chosen Mozart). Daily use of 15 minutes is encouraged.

Both of these slow breathing methods, supported by abundant research combined with many thousands of successful users, demonstrate the most effective way of using music to lower blood pressure: namely, as a relaxing medium in which to apply slow breathing.

Platitudes and attitudes…

The true significance of the Seattle study – within its limitations – is that both results are equally encouraging and merit further attention. Especially when considered along with numerous other resources the study points the way to a promising, totally safe and natural alternative for blood pressure reduction.

Sadly, the way the study has been reported contributes to exactly the opposite effect. Along with the usual platititudes acknowledging the method for its potential, though “minor”, role in the fight against hypertension, most of the reports agree that “no one should think that relaxation or listening to classical music can replace blood pressure medication”.

Actually, this is the whole point: to replace potentially dangerous blood pressure drugs with safe and natural methods. And it’s not a futile goal. In his article “What Your Doctor May Not Tell You About Blood Pressure” for the Virginia Hopkins Health Watch, Dr. John Lee writes:

“The most important thing I want to tell you about high blood pressure is that it can almost always be lowered with lifestyle changes… But the conventional medical wisdom is that patients won’t make lifestyle changes, and so the automatic response to high blood pressure is to prescribe a drug that will reduce it. I believe, and there is plenty of research to support me, that these drugs have just as good a chance of killing you as the high blood pressure does, especially if you don’t really need them”.

A little Nachtmusik?

It seems that the attitude driving doctors to prescribe unnecessary blood pressure drugs is the same that always concludes studies of natural alternatives with “but it will never replace medications”. As a matter of fact, slow breathing – with and without music – has helped thousand of people to avoid, reduce or even eliminate blood pressure medications. And a little Mozart sure helps the medicine go down easier!

Getting Into Musical Restoration

It was around four years ago now, when I decided to make an electric guitar for a course I was studying on. It was not a great feat of musical and design genius, but it inspired me to continue working with musical instruments.

The restoration of guitars in particular is not as hard as one may think. Once you have basic woodwork skills, the specialist skills required for instrument restoration are easily picked up. I think, by the time I had worked on my fourth parlour guitar I understood the methods sufficiently well.

I began my restoration projects by firstly identifying and writing down every small detail about the instrument I was to work on. I began with guitars because I am a classical guitarist. Once I had identified the jobs I needed to look over or correct I got started.

Usually the first thing I did was to either remove or replenish (by sanding and re-applying) the coat of varnish or lacquer. Quite often I would entirely remove it and replace it with a French polish finish. Next I would attempt to fill and re-glue any cracks in the bodywork. With these old guitars there are often many hairline cracks that need to be dealt with sooner than later. The next thing to do was to check the bridge and top-nut and if the either was broken beyond repair, it would have to be replaced. I replaced them with a handmade bridge of my own (design based on an original, of course). Once the actual body of the guitar was in good order, and the action of the strings had been checked (and lowered if necessary). Between 3-4mm is ideal. The guitar often just needed a good clean before selling it on.

Occasionally with some jobs, the fretboard would have groves in – these can be filled with ordinary wood-filler. As long as they are coloured to look like the original wood used. If you happen to have a large problem, i.e. the neck has warped and needs replacing, you can either sell the guitar with a warped neck and declare it to be so, or replace and rebuild the entire neck (including frets I’m afraid). Now for an amateur restorer that is perhaps not advisable without a lot of practice. In which case you could also buy a pre-built neck from a registered luthier, if you like.

Otherwise, simple problems like ‘bad tuning pegs’ can easily be replaced with the use of a screwdriver.

The most important thing to remember when restoring instruments is their sound! If you loose the sound, the instrument has no value other than the wood it is made of. I cannot stress that point enough. Many people restore these instruments as they would a chair. The most important thing to do whilst restoring it is to play it and check that what you are doing isn’t damaging the fundamental sonority of the instrument.
Happy restoring!

Tips on How to Choose the Right Music Course for a Career in the Music Industry

Selection of the correct music course is crucial. For some, the aim is to get into the music industry as a recording artist at a label or other connected role, others to play in a band or orchestra or become music teachers. The choices are wide and it can be daunting, knowing you will invest a good chunk of your life and money in something where you’re not certain of the outcome. It can feel like a gamble.

Apart from talent (this is a must) getting a job in the music industry requires skill and experience (if you are lucky enough to get a work placement or internship) in addition to a qualification. Budget is also an important factor while choosing a music course. If you play an instrument, some (like brass and wind) can be very expensive. There may well be continuous investment in your instrument as well as the private lessons while studying. If you intent to apply to a top institution which has links to the industry, be aware of the high fees charged.

Generally, most institutions look for a certain standard of performance of vocal and instrumental skills and sometimes composition ability.

Below are some ideas for how to proceed with choosing the best music course:

1. Decide which area of the music industry you are interested in and passionate about.

Is it teaching/education, performance, production / technology or business related? Look at educational and industry directories that provide an overview of different sectors, job specifications etc. Also, view at any advice and guidance pages. If you plan to do a degree, the 2 main ones are a Music BA and BMus. You might find that some universities offer both a BA and a BMus course. While both of them are general music courses, the BA course normally follows a broader range of subjects, including more academic subjects like music history or analysis.

BMus courses, on the other hand,are more practical-oriented. They usually contain more performance and composition elements. You should compare the course details at individual universities for an exact comparison.

2. If applying to a University or College, understand that they want the best candidates as much as you want to study there.

Therefore, do your research. When considering a University/college, consider:

– if you want to stay near your family or move as far away as possible
– big city or small town? What’s the social life like?
– look at how long the course have been established
– what are the entry requirement needed to be accepted?
– do they get visits by people working in the industry?
– are the current students happy with their courses there?
– what was the feedback from previous graduates to the course? How many of them got good jobs when they left?

3. You can help yourself by applying to as many relevant ones as possible.

Be aware that competition for places means many music courses are over-subscribed. Also, there a large number of different music courses available at universities. If you’ve already decided your career path, it is worth considering a specialised music course. If you want to keep your options open, choose a general music course.

4. Visit the institution offering the course and meet the staff and see the facilities.

Understand the nature of the courses you are considering by asking questions, particularly when applying for a specific course. Make sure you ask the following questions:

– How connected to the music industry is the course (e.g. industry guest lectures, work placement opportunities, etc)?
– Do lecturers and staff have industry backgrounds?
– What are the course facilities like (e.g studios, rehearsal rooms, concert hall, teaching areas, libraries, research and development centre)?
– Are there performing opportunities e.g. bands, chamber and full orchestras at special events etc
– What are the opportunities for progression to higher level courses on completion of the qualification/training?
– Do students have freedom to specialise in within the course, e.g. take performance/composition/business as major parts of it? Can students work on their own extended projects under staff direction?
– Does the course teach business skills? anyone entering the music industry must understand the business side. Sales, marketing, people and project management, finance and promotional skills are particularly valuable.
– What is the teaching like? Are the classes small and intimate where everybody has a personal tutor in case something goes wrong?
– What careers have past students gone on to have after completing the course? Is the qualification held in high regard when seen by prospective employers in the music industry?

If possible, it is also worth speaking with a professional musician or music teacher you know because they will be able to identify the possibilities available. Not only this, they will also be able to give you some insight into what to expect when you complete your course and start job hunting.