Music Medicine & Therapy

Mozart and Science III – Keynote

Last weekend I was fortunate enough to attend a conference on Music in Medicine and Therapy called ‘Mozart and Science III’.  This conference, based this year in Krems (Austria), show cases interdisciplinary research on the effects and experiences of music in medical settings. Here is the conference website’s description of the aims for the meeting:

“The third convention Mozart & Science specifies the issues of music therapy and music medicine with regard to the requirements of physicians and health care in inpatient and outpatient settings. Owing to international research and interdisciplinary exchanges, music is now applied in the fields of medicine and therapy in a variety of differentiated modes.

At this year’s convention in Krems the talks will be oriented towards special medical fields such as oncology, dementia, epilepsy, tinnitus, depression, neurology, psychiatry, psychosomatics and trauma. The keynote lectures … provide comprehension of the physiological and psychological foundations of the effects of music even to potentially interested newcomers in this area.

All speakers have extensive experience in the therapeutic implementation of music for medical purposes and will illustrate the fields of its application and especially how it can be applied beneficially by referring to their respective practical areas. Case studies and surveys which are going to be presented in Krems display the spread of international practice. Thus, music therapy provides a good basis to discuss quality standards and their documentation, which increasingly become standard usage in the medical field”.

I was very excited to attend this conference; music medicine is a new area of study/research for me but one increasingly at the forefront of many music psychology studies. Anecdotally I was aware of many reports as to how music can benefit individuals in hospitals and hospices, but it was my mission on this conference to find out where research into these effects is being carried out, who is doing it, and what they were finding regarding the neuro-physiological underpinnings of any positive effects.

The first talk was a fantastic introduction into the physiological basis of music medicine effects. It was given by Dr Julian Thayer, the Ohio Eminent Scholar Professor in Health Psychology, based at The Ohio State University – Department of Psychology. Dr Thayer’s primary area of expertise is how variations in heart rate (Heart Rate Variability – HRV) can serve as an index of how a person’s central nervous system is functioning. To begin his talk he provided many sources of evidence that low HRV is associated with poorer health and increased levels of depression and anxiety. This in turn is associated with higher levels of resting activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VPFC); individuals showing this neurological signature are thought to show a greater ‘threat’ response to changes in environmental stimuli that are perhaps not always directly threating (i.e. they show more anxiety when faced with change). And, it goes without saying, that high levels of anxiety are not good for health. An interesting question therefore is can you block these neurological ‘threat’ responses with music, effectively ‘turning down’ the activity of the VPMC and leading to a more a less stressed/ more relaxed coping state?

Dr Thayer has conducted a number of studies, beginning with his PhD, where he has shown that music can affect valence (by changing pitch) and arousal (by altering tempo). His circumplex model, published in 2001 showed how carefully selected music can induce discrete emotional categories by modulating changes along both these dimensions. Furthermore he showed an interesting triphasic response: individuals with higher HRV showed greater variation in their emotionally induced physiological response to music, leading to the conclusions that they are perhaps ‘more sensitive’ in this regard.

Dr Thayer then summed up by pulling all these strands of research together. He suggested that targeted music listening could potentially be used to increase an individuals HRV and therefore lead them to be more responsive to change in their environment. One consequence of this may be that they are better able to control ‘threat’ responses, show less anxiety and be in better health. From what Dr Thayer was saying it sounds like he is about to embark on studies that will test this hypothesis, and it will be fascinating to see how these turn out over the next couple of years.

There are (at least) two interesting theoretical possibilities emerging from Dr Thayer’s research that were new to me. The first is that basic, fixed physiological measures (i.e. a person’s HRV) can have an influence on emotional responses to music. This concept is something that is rarely if at all mentioned in studies of music and emotion that I know of, and it would be great to see it taken up in this field of study. The second is the idea that increasing HRV can be a tool for improving health. One can improve HRV with things like exercise of course, but for those in hospital where physical movement is limited or impossible it might be the case that targeted music listening can help improve this basic underlying physiological response, which would then have repercussions for their recovery and coping behaviours. As I said at the beginning, this was a fascinating introduction. And a very engaging speaker! I wish him all the best with his work.