The Frontal Cortex

Mozart and Medicine

There are lots of ways to combine science and art. Some of them are more problematic than others:

One of the strangest exhibits at the opening of “Design and the Elastic Mind,” the very strange show at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that explores the territory where design meets science, was a teeny coat made out of living mouse stem cells. The “victimless leather” was kept alive in an incubator with nutrients, unsettlingly alive. Until recently, that is.

Paola Antonelli, a senior curator at the museum, had to kill the coat. “It was growing too much,” she said in an interview from a conference in Belgrade. The cells were multiplying so fast that the incubator was beginning to clog. Also, a sleeve was falling off. So after checking with the coat’s creators, a group known as SymbioticA, at the School of Anatomy & Human Biology at the University of Western Australia in Perth, she had the nutrients to the cells stopped.

But this surgeon, Dr. Claudius Conrad, seems like a model for what can happen when you bring the two cultures together. One of his recent papers looked at the tranquilizing effects of Mozart sonatas on sick patients:

Mozart’s letters and biographies, Dr. Conrad said, portray a man almost constantly sick, constantly fending off one infection or ailment after another.

“Whether he did it intentionally or not,” Dr. Conrad said, “I think he composed music the way he did partly because it made him feel better.”

Recently, Dr. Conrad has focused on specific mechanisms that may help explain music’s effects on the body.

In a paper published last December in the journal Critical Care Medicine, he and colleagues revealed an unexpected element in distressed patients’ physiological response to music: a jump in pituitary growth hormone, which is known to be crucial in healing. “It’s a sort of quickening,” he said, “that produces a calming effect.” Accelerando produces tranquillo.

The study itself was fairly simple. The researchers fitted 10 postsurgical intensive-care patients with headphones, and in the hour just after the patients’ sedation was lifted, 5 were treated to gentle Mozart piano music while 5 heard nothing.

The patients listening to music showed several responses that Dr. Conrad expected, based on other studies: reduced blood pressure and heart rate, less need for pain medication and a 20 percent drop in two important stress hormones, epinephrine and interleukin-6, or IL-6. Amid these expected responses was the study’s new finding: a 50 percent jump in pituitary growth hormone.

Thanks for the tip, Dave!


  1. #1 Elizabeth
    May 21, 2008

    I must say that as I have been recovering from my cognitive / memory deficits, MUSIC has become a big part of my life in a way in which it never was. I attributed this new passion to ‘awakening’ my audio systems when my visual memory shut down (I felt like I had run out of film for my mental camera).
    Nonetheless, I have been craving music the past few years, often attending the symphony on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday… and even though I have no music skills, the music stays with me. Mostly I alternate between classical and jazz of all time periods, although modern pieces are more interesting to me. And OPERA, even just as a recording, engages me. I find it quite interesting given I had essentially little exposure to music as a child and was merely socially engaged with it prior to the past few years. Now I actually crave it.

  2. #2 how to kickflip
    August 16, 2010

    my aunty has recently been using music as an aid, shes recently been losing her memory but she finds listening to music from her childhood and younger years makes it easier to remember things.

  3. #3 geatteGrano
    September 25, 2010

    so informative, thanks to tell us.

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