Take Two Grateful Deads and Call Me in the Morning

My friend was in dire straits. What had been rare occurrences of panic attacks—one every year or so—had turned into a full-blown panic disorder that made it impossible for him to enjoy peace of mind..

If you've never suffered a panic attack, the idea of one—of being, in the absence of any real threat, suddenly overwhelmed by fear—can seem inconceivably strange. Try to imagine fear flooding your mind with such fierce momentum that you struggle to catch your breath, so convincing is the sensation that everything is spinning horribly out of control. Once that happens and the fear has taken over, it doesn't matter if the threat is real or not.

In fact, my friend says, that's the scariest thing about it—no actual, external threat is needed to trigger a panic attack. It happens like a sucker punch, creating an internal climate of fear in which you find yourself constantly anticipating the next attack. Always simmering below the surface, this perpetual dread of terror—a fear of fear itself—can cruelly fulfill itself in a vicious cycle of panic attacks.

But there is good news: A panic disorder, as debilitating as it can be, is treatable—with music.

That's no real surprise—music is powerful medicine. Science has shown that it can mitigate stress, lower blood pressure, soothe pain, boost the immune system, and deliver a host of other salubrious services, both emotional and physical. And we consume music to feel a certain way, just as we take drugs. My friend consumes music to feel safe.

But not just any grade of music. It has to sound good. It is a rule by which my friend has staked his sense of sanity, having realized, as he did, through the seemingly obvious but no less impressive observation that listening to music through a good playback system did more to relieve his panic disorder than did listening to the same music through mediocre gear. The better a recording sounds, the easier my friend finds it to become lost in the performance—to hear beyond the recording's inherent mechanical character into that unique moment in time when the music was actually being performed. Conversely, sonically deficient MP3 files pull my friend right out of the music, and on a few occasions have even exacerbated his panic disorder.

"Well, duh!" I hear from audiophiles. "Of course sound quality matters!" Which, of course, it does—to audiophiles.

But here's the thing: My friend wasn't an audiophile in any traditional sense—he didn't, from a relatively young age, discover great sound and cool gear and decide to make of them the twin obsessions of a hobbyist pursuit. No, he got into high fidelity because it made what had become a very difficult life sufficiently bearable for him to want to continue living it. It was this catalytic revelation about the quality of his life—that better sound quality improved how he felt, beyond his fundamental affection for the music itself—that turned him into a devotee of good sound.

So—can good sound simply be a healthier alternative to bad sound, in a similar way that the quality of a pharmaceutical drug has some bearing on its therapeutic effectiveness?

Yes, according to prominent neuroscientist Daniel J. Levitin, the New York Times best-selling author of This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession (Plume/Penguin, 2007, footnote 1). However, the good doctor was quick to point out that none of his research directly looked at differences in sound quality. Still, Levitin said to me that "My intuition is that the better-quality audio will provide better health results because listeners won't be distracted by distortion or other signal-degrading artifacts."

Powerful stuff. After all, Levitin's is the opinion of a leading expert on music's effects on the brain. This wasn't some lowbrow fluff thrown off the top of some dummy's head.

"Is music healthier than vitamin supplements?" I threw off the top of my head.

Levitin's nod was bittersweet; I wondered how much more audio hardware I could have bought with the money I'd wasted on vitamins, and been the healthier for it.

On the other hand, this was darn near groundbreaking news: a quasi-scoop from an expert source about the potential not only of music, but of sound quality itself, to be healthy for us. But "Not all listeners will benefit from better sound," Levitin cautioned. "Those with tin ears are probably just as well served by music coming from another room on an old baseball-stadium horn speaker."

This raised a caveat with which Levitin agreed: that those more able to hear distortion and other signal-degrading artifacts would likely require better sound to reap the same health benefits from music as those whose hearing can't detect such artifacts. Then again, said Levitin, "The average person may still be affected by poor-quality sound. They may not know they're hearing distorted material, but it could affect their ability to become completely absorbed by it, thereby offering them no help."

I thought of my friend, and how high-quality sound helps him every day. Then I thought of us: As if our hobby weren't already cool enough, turns out it's also probably good for our health. How many of the other things we enjoy consuming can we say that about?

So screw vitamins. And overcooked broccoli. And screw shitty audio that's bad for us.

Being now the wiser, we should insist on being subjected to nothing less than great sound, wherever the source, and whatever the mode of playback (footnote 2). The doctor—nay, the neuroscientist—recommends it.—Robert Schryer

Footnote 1: Daniel J. Levitin teaches at UC Berkeley. Check out Daniel Levitin's Wikipedia page for "wow"-inducing tidbits about his backgrounds in music and sound—such as the fact that he created guitar tones for Santana and the Grateful Dead.

Footnote 2: See Stephen Mejias's thoughts on this subject.—Ed.

Frank.hardly's picture

This is really good information. A useful follow-up would be how we can hypnotize our wives into agreeing that spending more money on audio is more worthwhile than home renos and transitory vacations in the sun.

EvanB's picture

I too suffered from panic disorder. It started just like your friend and eventually spiraled out of control. I found refuge in books on the topic and, of course, music. I also found a good doctor who prescribed 10mg of Lexapro. I refused medication at first, but after a couple of months I was back to my normal, happy self enjoying life. I'm trying to figure out a long term strategy to get off medication (yoga, meditation) but for now, I can't complain. I hope your friend found lasting peace.
Thank you for this article, it made my night.

lo fi's picture

The lesser of two evils I guess.

makarisma's picture

Thank-you very much for this incredible article. Many will relate to it as did I. For me as well, the feeling of anxiety was distracted by the excitement of enjoying my gear every night after coming home. But unfortunately the mind gets accustomed to this treatment after a while and relapses can occur. Only mind control and medicine help until the individual overcomes this period of their life which I believe most eventually do.

Anton's picture

1) "My intuition is that the better-quality audio will provide better health results because listeners won't be distracted by distortion or other signal-degrading artifacts."

That's a pretty soft call, with no basis in fact. I would expect better from a scientist.

2) "Those with tin ears are probably just as well served by music coming from another room on an old baseball-stadium horn speaker."

If someone doesn't care about the source, but gets the joy and benefit of music, why disparage him or her as a tin ear?

Ad hominim science?

On behalf of people who like music no matter from where it emanates, get lost with that 'tin ear' BS.

3) As a group, who has better measurable parameters of hearing acuity?


Which group typically doesn't give half a crap about our men's hobby fetish for hearing the tram go by Carnegie Hall on Belafonte's live album?


If Levitin's premise were true, we'd see a hobby full of women.

4) Which group is more prone to paraphilias?

Men, by a tremendous margin.

Paraphila, audiophilia...men have gear fetishes. It's not "all about the music."

5) Question: How many of you can be driving along and hear your favorite song come on the car system and you have a positively wonderful, sing along, I love this song, I am enjoying music moment?

How many of you hear that come on and say, "Damn, I wish I had been home in my man cave to hear this, without all that infernal road noise and distracting scenery and limited sonic bandwidth with limited imaging I get in this car?"

Prolly none of y'all.

6) Maybe 'audiophiles' simply prefer solitary pursuits and our walls of gear and man cave listening rooms with only one chair are the actual goal we seek? Audiophila may be a therapeutic solipsism.

This is a BS conclusion that ever finer reproduction will yield ever finer psychiatric results.


Maybe if Rush Limbaugh were only broadcast in 4D, people would be able to see what he's up to better? ;-D

Allen Fant's picture

Good article- RS.
as Anton points out, there is always a "culprit" for this sort of thing. No doubt, Music, is the great healer.

ednazarko's picture

I've looked at fMRI, fPET, and ERP scans of people listening to music. If the music is music you like to relax to, it hits many areas of the brain that anti-depressants, anti-anxiolytics, and meditation hit - even if you're in an entirely un-relaxing BANGBANGBANGBANGBANG imaging machine under grim florescent lights and in a room reeking of antiseptic. Or while you're wearing a helmet with wire probes pricking into your scalp. If I sit, eyes shut, listening to some types of music, my pulse slows, breathing slows, blood pressure slows. Other types, exactly the opposite - sitting in a chair eyes shut listening to music that I use to ramp up before going on stage, my pulse increases almost 50% - while sitting, eyes shut, just listening.

And audio quality does matter, at least for me. (At 62, I can still hear CRT's whine, and used to be able to tell what type of metal a brass player's bell was made of but am out of practice now... but can still tell red brass from yellow brass.) Compressed audio, other than rock that's already ramped up in the loudness wars, distracts me. Deeper sound stage, richer environment background, no compression artifacts, and I get noticeably more amped up or damed down, depending on the goal.

No question that the source of the music matters. I've had two puppies from a highly driven breed that had huge issues with crate training. Singing lullabies to them made them settle down and sleep. Playing lullabies to them, they continued to bark and fuss and try to get out of the crate.

Anton's picture

A pox upon compression and dynamic ranges of 3dB!

ednazarko's picture

As someone who's first concert was the MC5... where their music and feedback between songs was equally loud... I don't object to compression itself. But... there's music where compression doesn't matter (heavy metal, The Alabama Shakes) where I don't mind production compression. None of the "float me higher than morphine" music (and I know it's personal) is at dynamic ranges below 15db...

432skidoo's picture

When talking about music and the mental health benefits it can offer, as you d in this article, it might be well advised to note that instruments/music tuned to 432 hertz offer more of this type of healing than does music in the current 440 hertz standard tuning.
Listen to some some time, and you will see what I mean. Duke Ellington's Black Beauty album is in 432 Hz tuning, and an absolute joy to listen to, both for the playing, and for the fact f the tuning of the instruments. Best regs all.