Music has a powerful influence on a listener's heart rate. If you have ever felt a surge of energy when your favorite upbeat song comes on the radio, or if you listen to slow music to relax, the emotions you experience are directly linked to what music does to your heart rate.
Music promotes overall arousal or relaxation in listeners, with heart rate being only one factor among many that music influences. When a music listener's brain registers the tempo of a song, his brain sends signals to the body that cause breathing to either accelerate or decelerate, matching the tempo of the music. At the same time, the listener's heart rate races or slows accordingly. The listener's brain and body pick up on the tempo and rhythm of the music, and the heart beats to match them.
Listening to music with a fast tempo speeds an individual's heart rate. A study by Luciano Bernardi at the University of Pavia, featured in Scientific American, found that the heart rates of volunteers sped in response to musical crescendos, synchronizing with the music. Even if the listener dislikes a song, her pulse changes to match the tempo of the music.
Slow music has the potential to relax listeners in the same way upbeat music arouses them. A study published in the Journal of Vascular Nursing in 2006 showed that before angiography procedures, music successfully lowered the heart rates of nervous patients and reduced anxiety. Another study, mentioned in Australian ABC News and published in the journal Heart, showed that listening to music with a slow tempo relaxes people and slows their pulse.
Musicians have the most pronounced reaction to music, as more than one study, including Bernardi's, have shown. Dr. Peter Sleight at the University of Oxford suggests this is due to their musical training; not only are they more in tune with music, they have also learned to breathe in rhythm to the music--and their heart rates match their respiration.
In 2010, Philips released a new MP3 player called Activa that matches music to heart rate during workouts. Fast-paced music that increases a listener's heart rate means increased blood flow throughout the body, helping exercisers warm up and reach their target pulse more quickly, according to a study published in The Sport Journal. Later, listening to meditative music helps lower the pulse as exercisers cool down.