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!