Abnormally rapid heartbeat


Music can trigger powerful physiological responses

Music can elicit a remarkable range of emotions, from elation to the deepest sorrow. As well as provoking a mental response, it also has characteristic effects on the body.

Music can give us the ‘thrills’, ‘chills’ and ‘shivers’. Heart rate and skin conductance may change. The hairs on the back of our necks (and elsewhere) really do stand up.

These effects arise from the action of hormones, triggered by signals from structures such as the hypothalamus. Stirring, martial music may stimulate the release of adrenaline; dance music can trigger a burst of endorphins, associated with the experience of bliss.

Music activates areas of the brain such as the insula, which seems to maintain an internal representation of how the body ‘feels’. Music thus conveys a sensation that affects our whole body.

Might music even affect our immune function? The nervous, endocrine and immune systems are more connected than once thought, so this is conceivable. Music may, for example, affect levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which can influence the immune system.

Lead image:

Diagrammatic representation of electrocardiogram traces in a case of abnormally rapid heartbeat.

Wellcome Images CC BY NC ND

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Music, Mind and Medicine’ in June 2009 and reviewed and updated in July 2014.

Music, Mind and Medicine
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development