Can classical music make you healthier? The idea may sound far-fetched, but the belief that the classical repertoire may have a role in speeding convalescence, temporarily boosting intellectual performance and lowering damaging levels of stress is becoming increasingly widespread.
While nobody dreams of suggesting that a visit to a concert hall could replace toiling away in a gym (alas), listening to orchestral music is staking a place for itself as a valuable form of complementary therapy. But how can something as subjective as appreciating music be shown to actually boost your health? And are such claims quite as much of a service to the genre as they might initially sound?
While doctors are unlikely to start prescribing Purcell any time soon, many small case studies trumpet the efficacy of classical music as a therapeutic aid. Research by the cardiology unit of Brazil's University of Pernambuco, for example, recently tried exposing a group of children recovering from heart surgery to a 30-minute daily session of classical music. They discovered that patients who got a proper orchestral blast demonstrated healthier heart and respiratory rates and an apparent reduction in pain.
Meanwhile, a study published this summer by the University of Pavia in Italy demonstrated that crescendos and decrescendos (steady increases and decreases in volume) in classical music could help modulate heart and breathing rates in patients, confirming the potential effectiveness of music in convalescence. The physical process that underlies these therapies is known as entrainment - the synchronisation of the body's rhythms with an external stimulus until they eventually fall into step.
While many species act in rhythmic patterns, humans are unique in their ability to synchronise - or entrain - their movements to an external timekeeper such as a ticking clock or beating drum. Just as people holding a conversation will come to mimic the volume and tempo of each other's voices, so will the body's rhythm come to harmonise with external rhythmic patterns that it is exposed to, the heart rate rising or falling or breathing changing speed.
An understanding of entrainment can thus be harnessed for performance-boosting or therapeutic uses. Studies have shown that by listening to gentle classical music, the body can be entrained into a state of relaxation that improves performance in IQ tests (though the effect is very short-lived, and the relative significance of these findings is a subject of controversy), while the simple effort of concentrating on a piece of classical music can induce a form of meditative calm as the body concentrates on matching its responses to the rhythm, irregular or not, of any given piece.
Classical music's physical benefits are not confined to the hospital, however. It is increasingly being used in public areas to soften the atmosphere. Upon entering many stations on London's Underground network, you will often find yourself assailed by the sound of lush strings and massed choirs. The music was initially confined to crime flashpoints but London's transport chiefs have found that piping classical music through public areas defuses tension, discourages aggressive behaviour and generally makes passengers feel a lot better.
In a recent survey, 85 per cent of underground users asked said the music improved their mood and several stations reported reductions in incidents. The measure has also been adopted by public transport chiefs in Melbourne, Australia. In other words, classical music can not only help temper your heart rate, reduce pain and help you relax, it can also calm the atmosphere of public spaces and encourage better civic behaviour.
For classical music lovers, it may seem churlish to greet this affirmation of their beloved music's enduring value with anything but delight. Such moves as the London Underground's enthusiasm for classically-induced crowd calming expose more people to the repertoire's pleasures and break down the conception that orchestral music is strictly for the elite. What could possibly be wrong with classical music finding another niche for itself?
Some classical buffs bridle at the idea that the music they love is essentially a sort of aural anaesthetic, a benevolent form of muzak designed to soothe as background tinkling rather than to challenge and intrigue. While there is plenty of delectable classical music that might make you want to kick off your shoes and sink into a warm bath, you don't have to go far to stumble across a tidal wave of musical passion, anger and despair. Why, then, is classical music only being characterised in these studies as benign and soothing rather than challenging?
The University of Pernambuco chose to play Vivaldi's Four Seasons to its convalescent children, a wonderful piece that deserves its popularity as one of the most recorded classical music scores in existence. But the lush virtuosity of Vivaldi is only one facet of the classical tradition, sitting alongside such works as the jerky, percussive aggression of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring (the accompaniment, after all, to a ballet about human sacrifice), or Mahler's spiky, unsettling song cycle Kindertotenlieder (child-killing songs). Still these are just as central to the classical tradition as, say, the lyrical lushness of Brahms or the minimalist reveries of Satie.
The London Underground, it seems, is not restricting itself to the sweet and pastoral: last time I visited the city I was greeted by the fierce onslaught of Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem as I walked through Vauxhall Station. It is a thrilling (and, at high volume, frightening) aural vision of the apocalypse; the doom-laden message that the end is nigh would seem the last thing to lull passengers and deter crime. Have people become so turned off to classical music's power that they find such awe-filled pieces soothing? Or do people listen to this music so inattentively that they don't register its content? Using such music as a crowd calmer may be effective, but what it implies about ordinary people's attitudes to the classical canon isn't necessarily that heartening.
More subtly, the promotion of classical music as a therapeutic aid is part of a wider contemporary move to justify many aspects of good living for their social role rather than for the pleasure they give. Does the promotion of classical music as a social and therapeutic tool betray a similar unease about the celebration (and funding) of pleasure? Such approaches to art could be seen to validate the importance of pleasure in everyday life, emphasising it not just as a perk but an essential part of well-being that cannot be jettisoned without grave consequences. And while those who protest the assumptions behind the understanding of classical music as inherently soothing and calming have a fair point, surely the fact that it is reaching more people in any form must be a good thing.
It's true that classical music is generally far more rewarding when listened to attentively, that its complexities and subtlety deserve better treatment than a background hum. But do music buffs really have the right to insist that others enjoy the repertoire only in circumstances that they ordain desirable? Insisting that we must sit tight and listen carefully is a sure-fire way of ensuring that classical music gains no new listeners outside its traditional niches.
And while classical music wafting across a busy ticket hall hardly encourages careful listening, one of the reasons I suspect such measures prove popular is that the music played so obviously has more content and interest to it that standard ambient muzak. While standard lift music (thankfully now a dying genre in public spaces) aims to soothe and calm without attracting attention, it often has the opposite effect, grating on the nerves of people who sense a patronising attempt at mood control. If classical music proves more effective than such aural slush, it's because, despite the relative inattentiveness of most listeners, the quality and complexity of its content is immediately apparent.
Is it possible, perhaps, that people's preference to classical over muzak suggests that casual listeners are not as inattentive as they seem? Who knows - for every 20 tube passengers obliviously rushing through the ticket barriers, or 20 recovering patients nodding off to music they find dull, there may one person who stops briefly to listen, is entranced, and investigates the amazing beauty and range of classical music further for the first time.
Now there's an idea that is making me feel better already.