Music can facilitate blood pressure recovery
Sky Chafin1, Michael Roy1, William Gerin2and
1University of California, San Diego, USA
2Mount Sinai Medical Center, USA
Objectives. Interventions that reduce the magnitude of cardiovascular responses to
stress are justified, at least in part, by the notion that exaggerated responses to stress
can damage the cardiovascular system. Recent data suggest that it is worthwhile to
explore, in addition to the magnitude of the cardiovascular responses during stress
(reactivity), the factors that affect the return to baseline levels after the stressor has
ended (recovery). This experiment examined the effect of listening to music on
Design and method. Participants ðN ¼ 75Þ performed a challenging three-minute
mental arithmetic task and then were assigned randomly to sit in silence or to listen to
one of several styles of music: classical, jazz or pop.
Results. Participants who listened to classical music had significantly lower post-task
systolic blood pressure levels (M ¼ 2:1mmHg above pre-stress baseline) than did
participants who heard no music (M ¼ 10:8mmHg). Other musical styles did not
produce significantly better recovery than silence.
Conclusions. The data suggest that listening to music may serve to improve
cardiovascular recovery from stress, although not all music selections are effective.
The reactivity hypothesis has been the theoretical foundation for a great deal of recent
research on cardiovascular responses to stress. In its strong form, the hypothesis
maintains that exaggerated blood pressure and heart rate responses to stress can damage
the cardiovascular system. Thus, people who exhibit large cardiovascular responses are
at risk for the development of cardiovascular disease and hypertension, and situations
that lead to large responses put people at risk (Krantz & Manuck, 1984, 1986; Lovallo &
Wilson, 1992). As a means of better understanding the processes by which
psychological stressors may impact cardiovascular functioning, there has been an
effort to find techniques that limit or reduce the magnitude of the stress response.
*Correspondence should be addressed to Sky Chafin, Department of Psychology, University of California, San Diego, 9500
Gilman Drive, La Jolla, CA 92093-0109, USA (e-mail: email@example.com).
British Journal of Health Psychology (2004), 9, 393–403
q 2004 The British Psychological Society
Investigators have looked at such factors as the behaviour of supportive others
(Gerin, Pieper, Levy, & Pickering, 1992; Glynn, Christenfeld, & Gerin, 1999), the role of
self-efficacy and control over outcomes (Gerin, Litt, Deich, & Pickering, 1995; Hilmert,
Christenfeld, & Kulik, 2002), and the presence of pets (Allen, Blascovich, Tomaka, &
Kelsey, 1991), among others.
While most research stemming from the reactivity hypothesis has focused on acute
cardiovascular responses in the immediate presence of the stressor, a more recent
expanded view of the hypothesis includes cardiovascular recovery, or stress-associated
elevations in blood pressure and heart rate that persist when the stressor is no longer
present. A number of studies suggest that the duration of blood pressure elevation, in
addition to the magnitude of the initial peak reaction, may contribute to cardiovascular
illness (Borghi, Costa, Boschi, Mussi, & Ambrosini, 1986; Gerin & Pickering, 1995;
Haynes, Gannon, Orimoto, O’Brien, & Brandt, 1991).
The addition of cardiovascular recovery to the reactivity hypothesis has several
potential advantages in ecological validity. It is often the case that a stressor is quite short
in duration (‘You’re fired’, ‘I’m leaving you’), but the reaction to the stressor lasts far
longer. It seems likely that the health impact of the event is not confined to the period
when the ‘stressor’ is actually present, but instead extends to the period after the
stressor when the person is thinking about, and recovering from, the episode. Just as
past research has focused on factors that affect the magnitude of the cardiovascular
response during stress, we hypothesize that it will also prove useful to examine factors
that hasten or attenuate post-stress blood pressure and heart rate levels.
There is evidence that psychological manipulations can alter the recovery
process. For example, Glynn, Christenfeld, and Gerin (2002) showed that stressors
that produced an emotional response were associated with delayed recovery,
independent of the blood pressure response evoked during the stressor. They also
found that participants who were distracted during a post-stress rest period exhibited
faster recovery than those who were not, which suggests that ruminating about the
stressful experience may contribute to its psychological and physiological sequelae.
In this study, we hypothesized that listening to music would reduce post-stress
blood pressure elevations. There are several reasons that music is a good candidate.
First, music has been shown to reduce cardiovascular reactivity. Allen and Blascovich
(1994) studied autonomic responses to a laboratory stressor in surgeons who regularly
use music in the operating room. Using a within-participants design in the laboratory,
surgeons performed a difficult mental arithmetic task while listening to self-selected
music, Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ or silence. Cardiovascular reactivity during the mathematical
task was lowest while surgeons listened to the self-selected music they used in their
operating rooms and highest during periods of no music.
Music has also been used as an effective audioanalgesic and anxiolytic in applied
medical and dental settings. Patients who listened to music in the first and second
days following major abdominal surgery reported significantly less pain and distress
(Good et al., 1999). Patients experienced less anxiety, pain and discomfort during dental
procedureswhen they listened to music (Anderson, Baron, & Logan, 1991; Goff,Pratt, &
Madrigal, 1997). Music has also lowered apical heart rates in coronary patients
Is music in general effective for reducing cardiovascular arousal, or is one style more
beneficial than another? There is little agreement in the psychoaesthetic literature on
the operational definition of relaxing or sedative music (Hanser, 1985, 1988). Indeed,
even ‘anti-stress’ tapes have been found to be no more effective in reducing stress than
Sky Chafin et al.394
anarbitrarycollection ofpopular music(Hatta&Nakamura,1991).Furthermore,astudy
by Gerdner (1999) found that persons with Alzheimer’s disease experienced less
agitation when exposed to an individualized music programme than a ‘classical
relaxation’ music programme. Others caution it may not be so much personal
preference as an increased sense of control from the act of selecting music that reduces
psychological and physical stress (Anderson et al., 1991). Control over the music heard
is generally confounded with getting to hear one’s preferred style of music.
The present investigation used music selections from three major and distinct
categories—classical, jazz and ‘popular’ top 40—in order to cover a broad range
of music that is commonplace in the participants’ (college students) environment.
To evaluate the effect of choosing one’s music rather than being assigned a particular
style, in one condition participants chose which music category to listen to. Given the
mixed literature concerning relaxing music, we did not predict that any one style of
music would have more of an effect than another. However, given the success of music
in reducing reactivity and self-reported pain in a variety of settings, we felt it was an
appropriate choice for exploring whether cardiovascular recovery could be facilitated
with a psychological manipulation that is presented only after the termination of the
Participants performed a mental arithmetic task for three minutes while being harassed
by the experimenter. The stressor was followed by a ten-minute recovery period, during
which participants were assigned randomly to listen to either an assigned music style
(classical, jazz or pop music—‘no choice’ conditions), were allowed to choose one of
the three (‘choice’ condition), or sat in silence (control condition). Participants’ blood
pressure and heart rate were monitored continuously during baseline, stressor and
Undergraduates ðN ¼ 75Þ at the University of California, San Diego participated in the
study (52 females, 23 males, age M ¼ 20:6yrs; SD ¼ 3:0yrs). No participant reported
either being in poor health or taking any medication that might affect cardiovascular
measurements. Participants received course credit in exchange for participation.
Recording of physiological measures
Systolic and diastolic blood pressures, as well as heart rate, were collected using the
Ohmeda Finapres 2300 blood pressure monitor, which takes beat-to-beat pressures in
a non-invasive manner, using the Pen ˜az method. This technique uses a finger cuff, worn
on the third finger of the left hand. The Finapres has been demonstrated to be a useful
alternative to intra-arterial blood pressure measurement in laboratory testing (Imholtz,
Settels, & Meiracker, 1990), as well as in clinical practice (Gorback, Quill, & Lavine,
1991; Wieling, Harkel, & Lieshout, 1991). In addition, it has been shown to track
intra-arterial readings extremely well, even during sudden changes of blood pressure
(Parati, Casadei, & Groppelli, 1989). The Finapres collects a large number of readings,
enhancing reliability (Gerin, Pieper, & Pickering, 1993).
Music and cardiovascular recovery395
Three minutes of mental arithmetic with harassment was used as the stressor.
Participants were instructed to count backward out loud by 13s from 2,397. Thirty
seconds into the task, the experimenter informed participants that their counting was
too slow and that the task should be started again, but at a faster pace. Thirty seconds
after the first interruption, they were informed their performance was still deficient.
They were told to start again, but this time counting down by seven, instead of 13,
since it would be less challenging. Similar interruptions continued every 30 seconds for
Musical selection and presentation
Three different music styles were used for the recovery period: classical, jazz and pop.
The classical selections were pieces common to anti-stress tapes: Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’
(Pachelbel, track 3) and Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons: Spring, Movement I’ (Vivaldi, 1725,
track 1). The jazz selection included ‘Flamenco Sketches’ from the album Kind of Blue
by Miles Davis (Davis, 1959, track 5). The top 40 ‘popular’ music was selected with the
aid of a questionnaire distributed to 30 students in an undergraduate psychology course.
The questionnaire inquired about the categories of music, artists and particular songs
that the participants used to relax. The modal responses, Sarah McLachlan’s ‘Angel’
(McLachlan, 1997, track 7) and Dave Matthews Band’s ‘Crash Into Me’ (Matthews, 1996,
track 3) were used.
The music pieces in each category were arranged on high-fidelity cassette
tapes, and were played on a stereo cassette recorder at a low-medium volume
Each participant arrived singly for the experiment and was greeted by the experimenter
who explained that the participant’s blood pressure would be monitored during
a mental arithmetic task. After giving informed consent, the participant was seated at
a table in an empty room and fitted with the finger cuff of the blood pressure monitor.
The experimenter left the room after instructing the participant to sit quietly and not
move around during the ten minutes of the baseline period.
After ten minutes, the experimenter re-entered the room. In the music conditions,
at this point the experimenter apologized for ‘forgetting’ to put on music to help pass
the time during baseline and offered to put it on after the mathematical task. In the
‘choice’ condition, participantswere then asked to choose eitherclassical, jazz or top 40
music to listen to later. This procedure was implemented so that the music could be
started as soon as the stressor-task ended, with no activities to interfere with recovery
patterns, and to prevent the participants from developing any suspicions about the post-
task music. No participant did voice any such suspicion.
The participant then began the mental arithmetic task. At the end of three minutes,
the experimenter asked the participant to sit still during a ten-minute rest period
(recovery) and, in the appropriate conditions, turned on the music before leaving the
After ten minutes, the experimenter returned, removed the finger cuff, and stopped
the music. The participant then filled out several post-session questionnaires (described
below). Upon completion of the questionnaires, the participant was debriefed.
Sky Chafin et al.396
At the end of the recovery period, all participants completed the State/Trait Inventory
Form A to assess how anxious they were at that moment (Spielberger, Gorsuch, &
Lushene, 1970). Participants also rated, on 7-point Likert-type scales, ‘How anxious did
the mental math task make you?’ (1 ¼ not at all anxious to 7 ¼ very anxious), and ‘About
how much time did you spend thinking about the mental math task while the music
was playing?’ or, for the no-music condition, ‘in the last 10 minutes’ (1 ¼ no time at all to
7 ¼ the whole time). Participants in the music conditions also answered two questions
about the music: ‘How familiar are you with the selection of music you just listened to?’
(1 ¼ never heard it before to 7 ¼ hear it often) and ‘How relaxing did you find the
selection of music you just listened to?’ (1 ¼ not at all relaxing to 7 ¼ very relaxing).
Data reduction and analysis procedures
Three cardiovascular measures were examined: systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood
pressure and heart rate. The cardiovascular dependent measures were change scores,
computed using the difference between the mean of the recovery period and the mean
of the pre-task baseline measurements. These means were computed using the pulse-
based technique (Glynn, Christenfeld, & Gerin, 1997). In order to rule out possible
reactivity associated with beginning and ending the experiment, the first five minutes of
the baseline period and the last five minutes of the recovery period were not used in the
The systolic blood pressure change scores were the primary physiological measure,
as these appear most sensitive to psychological manipulation (Christenfeld, Gerin, &
Linden, 1997) and are the most reliable change scores when assessed using the Finapres
(Gerin et al., 1998). Diastolic and heart rate change scores were also examined. Raw,
rather than residualized, change scores were used (Llabre, Spitzer, & Saab, 1991).
Treatment effects were analysed for each of the three periods by performing a
separate one-way ANOVA for each of the cardiovascular measures. An alpha level of.05
was used in the data analysis.
There were no significant differences between conditions during the initial baseline
period for any of the physiological dependent measures, highest Fð4;70Þ ¼ 1:88 for
diastolic blood pressure, all ps . :20:
Stress manipulation check
The mathematical task was effective as a stressor for all conditions (see Fig. 1). Systolic
blood pressure rose an average of 19.5mmHg during the three-minute mathematical
task. Diastolic blood pressurerosean average of13.4mmHg, and heart rate an averageof
10.4bpm. There was no significant difference between conditions in the cardiovascular
change scores from the baseline period to the mathematical task for any of the
physiological measures, highest Fð4;70Þ ¼ 0:55 for heart rate, all ps . :70:
Music preferences of choice condition
Of the 15 participants in the choice condition, four chose to listen to the classical music
selections, five chose to listen to jazz, and six chose the top 40 music selections.
Music and cardiovascular recovery397
Effect of experimental conditions on blood pressure and heart rate recovery
For systolic blood pressure, there was a significant effect of music condition on
recovery, Fð4;70Þ ¼ 2:69; p , :04: A post hoc Tukey HSD showed a significant
difference between the classical and control conditions, ðp , :03Þ; with classical music
returning systolic blood pressure closer to baseline (M ¼ 2:1 mmHg) than the control
condition (M ¼ 10:8mmHg). Figure 1 displays the systolic blood pressure change
scores for all conditions. Diastolic blood pressure followed the same pattern as systolic
blood pressure during the recovery period, although it was not significant between
conditions, Fð4;70Þ ¼ 1:85; p . :13: This diastolic pattern is displayed in Fig. 2.
Heart rate was not significantly different between conditions, Fð4;70Þ ¼ 0:32; p . :86:
While systolic blood pressure differences provide the only statistically significant
result, it is worth noting that the control (silence) condition had higher cardiovascular
responses during the recovery period than all other conditions on all three physiological
measures. (See Table 1 for the average physiological change scores in each condition).
There was little impact of gender on the cardiovascular data. There was a significant
difference in resting levels of systolic blood pressure between male and female
participants, Fð1;73Þ ¼ 5:78; p , :02; with men having resting levels of 128.0 and
women 119.6mmHg. The trend was in the same direction for diastolic blood pressure
(77.0 vs. 72.5), though the difference did not reach significance ðp . :06Þ: For heart
rate, there was no sign of a gender effect ð77:0 vs. 78.5, p . :53Þ: During the
mathematical stressor task, there were no gender differences in reactivity ðall ps . :15Þ;
and there were also no differences in recovery scores ðall ps . :52Þ: Furthermore, when
gender was added as a factor in the analyses of recovery, the main effect of music on
systolic blood pressure remained significant, Fð4;65Þ;2:59; p , :05: No effect, either
main or interaction, of gender emerged ðall ps . :52Þ: The specific comparison of the
classical music and silence conditions also remained significant, with gender included as
a factor in the analyses, Fð1;26Þ ¼ 18:66; p , :001:
Figure 1. The effect of listening to music after a laboratory stressoron systolic blood pressure (change
Sky Chafin et al.398
There were no significant differences between conditions in how stressful participants
found the mathematical task, Fð4;70Þ ¼ 1:01; p . :41: The average response was 5.0 on
a 7-point Likert-type scale in which 7 ¼ most stressful.
There was a significant difference in how familiar participants found the selections of
music, Fð3;56Þ ¼ 6:51; p , :001: A post hoc Tukey HSD revealed that the jazz selection
was significantly less familiar, ðp , :05Þ; than the classical and top 40 selections.
There was not a significant difference between the music conditions in how relaxing
participants found the music, Fð3;56Þ ¼ 1:20; p . :32: The average response was 5.1
on a 7-point Likert-type scale in which 7 ¼ most relaxing.
Figure 2. The effect of listening to music after a laboratory stressor on diastolic blood pressure
(change from baseline).
Table 1. Mean recovery period cardiovascular change from baseline scores for each condition
Condition Systolic Bp Diastolic BpHeart rate
Classical ðn ¼ 15Þ
Jazz ðn ¼ 15Þ
Top 40 ðn ¼ 15Þ
Choice ðn ¼ 15Þ
Control ðn ¼ 15Þ
Music and cardiovascular recovery399
There was not a significant difference in how much participants reported
thinking during the recovery period about the mathematical task they had performed,
Fð4;70Þ ¼ 0:893; p . :47: The average response was 5.8, where 7 indicated that they
were thinking about the mathematical task the whole time.
State/Trait Inventory Form A
There was not a significant difference in the scores on the State/Trait Inventory between
conditions, Fð4;70Þ ¼ 0:07; p . :99: However, there was a significant correlation
between the State/Trait Inventory scores and systolic blood pressure recovery scores
ðr ¼ –0:25; p , :05Þ; indicating a moderate relationship between a self-reported
anxious state and delayed cardiovascular recovery.
The results suggest that methods for limiting cardiovascular responses to stress do not
need to occur in the presence of the stressor. The total amount of time that the
cardiovascular system is elevated can be reduced with a psychological manipulation
such as music listening during post-stress recovery. However, not all music is
appropriate after stress. The data indicate that listening to the classical music selections
after the stressor was more beneficial for reducing arousal than sitting in silence after
the stressor, but this effect was not found with other music selections.
Of course, these findings should be qualified with respect to certain limitations
imposed by the research methodology of the present investigation, including the
particular music selections presented as well as the mode of presentation. The main
limitation concerns whether the effects of Pachelbel’s ‘Canon’ and Vivaldi’s ‘The Four
Seasons: Spring’ can be generalized to all of classical music. Perhaps the reported
benefits are particular to the sound mechanics of the chosen pieces. Unfortunately,
investigating suchpsychoaesthetic details was not within the scope of this investigation;
the somewhat subjective nature of the music selection in this project does not allow us
to get at the more theoretical aspects of music therapy.
The benefits of classical music on cardiovascular recovery could be due to some
fairly direct power which music hath ‘to soothe the savage breast’ (Congreve,
1697/1967, Act I, Scheme i). The benefits of music could also rely on a mechanism, for
example, like classical conditioning, with certain types of music associated with calm
and relaxation. It is also possible that the music did not reduce arousal in a direct sense,
but was distracting and prevented rumination about the stressor (Glynn et al., 2002).
However, if distraction is the mechanism behind arousal reduction, it is interesting to
note that not all music was effective in reducing arousal, suggesting that either not all
music is distracting or that not all distraction leads to arousal reduction. It is also worth
noting that subjective reports of how much participants were distracted from thinking
about the mathematical task were not sensitive to the type of music listened to.
Although we do not know at this point just what it is that is important about these
classical pieces, we can conclude that something is.
Some of the findings of this project ran counter to previous research. Several studies
in the music therapy literature resulted in measurable changes in self-reported
relaxation due to music listening but did not show corresponding physiological changes
Sky Chafin et al.400
(Hanser, Martin, & Bradstreet, 1982; cited in Hanser, 1988). This investigation found an
opposite pattern: no differences in self-reported relaxation between music condition,
but significant differences in physiological responses. This difference should be
qualified by the fact that self-report data are notoriously unreliable.
In addition, the lack of a general effect of music runs counter to research by Hatta
and Nakamura (1991), who found no differences in stress reduction among different
styles of music. Nor would the literature predict the absence of a significant therapeutic
effect for the choice condition. Since participants had more control over their music
category, their increased perception of control could have reduced the magnitude of
their stress response (Anderson et al., 1991). It may be that having participants choose
between three experimenter-selected music styles was not as effective in producing the
perception of control as having participants bring in their own selections of music.
It could also be that the stress task altered the participants’ mood, so that the choice of
music made before the stress task may not have been the choice of music they would
have made after the stress task. Konecni (1982), for example, has shown that ‘people
actively seek different types of music at different times in order to optimize their mood’
We consider the particular empirical findings of this project as somewhat secondary
to their general value as an indication that cardiovascular responses to stress can be
altered, and reduced, even if the stressor is no longer present. The data suggest,
consistent with earlier work on psychological interventions during recovery (Glynn
et al., 2002), that these effects are most apparent in blood pressure, especially systolic
responses, and are not detectable for heart rate recovery following stress. Despite the
limitations of this investigation, our conclusions are important within the framework of
the expanded cardiovascular reactivity hypothesis, as well as having potential applied
significance. People often seek music for psychological benefits and our data suggest
that faster cardiovascular recovery from a stressor could be among those benefits.
Perhaps music can bring both pleasure and health.
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