Music & Emotion,  Music Medicine & Therapy

The beat and the body

Hello Dear Reader,

002I am writing to you today from Barcelona. I am on annual leave, taking a short break after the wonderful, successul launch of Music and Wellbeing on 5th May as part of the Arts and Humanities Festival. The evening went really well; you can read a short report about it here.  All the speakers were excellent and the piano recital from my PhD student Jessica Crich was amazing. The whole evening is being compiled as an iTunesU recording by the University of Sheffield. I will let you know when it is available.

Since then I have been overwhelmed with kind feedback and requests for meetings about potential collaborations. It was all go! Following this period, a short break with family is most welcome. I am looking forward to seeing two close friends marry this weekend by the coast in what should be a beautiful and emtional event.

Until then I promised to spend a few hours with you, Dear Reader, as I wanted to tell you about an exciting new paper that was drawn to my attention by Prof Stefan Koelsch. He is one of the authors on this paper, which is called ‘Autonomic Effects of Music in Health and Crohn’s Disease: The Impact of Isochronicity, Emotional Valence, and Tempo’ 

The main exciting finding, as we shall see, is that the beat of musical sound may signficantly effect our bodily response in a way that has implications for health and wellbeing – hence my interest!



1806_The_Hypothalamus-Pituitary_ComplexThere are plenty of data out there suggesting that music can trigger strong emotions. Based on this many have drawn the conclusion that music also impacts upon our nervous system. Specifically, the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS).

The ANS is regulated by the hypothalamus in the brain (see image) and functions to regulate respiration and cardiac systems, vasomotor activity, and reflex actions.

Because of its role in inducing heightened emotional states, music is thought to have the power to stimulate (e.g. fear, a sympathetic ANS response) or ease (e.g. calm, a parasympathetic ANS response), as reflected by changes to measures such as heart rate, blood pressure and skin conductance. These responses can help regulate our wellbeing state.

But is it really the strong emotion portrayed in music that stimulates ANS? Or something else?


Overall method

Copyrights by PS-PHOTO.NL
Copyrights by PS-PHOTO.NL

The authors of the present paper report three experiments where they tested ANS activity in response to music listening in 138 healthy subjects and 19 patients with Crohn’s Disease (CD). CD is an inflammatory bowel disease suspected to be associated with autonomic dysfunction.

People in the study listened to 30s periods of joyful, pleasant music (encompassing classical, jazz, and folk) music, isochronous tones (tones to a simple beat, in this case Shepard Tones) or unpleasant control stimuli (a nasty overlay of dissonant sounds over Shepard tones).

The authors measured heart rate (HR), heart rate variability (HRV – variation in the time interval between heart beats), and electrodermal activity (EDA – skin conductance – see image) while people listened to the above sounds and during a period of silent rest.


Study 1 Results

Compared to silence both pleasant and unpleasant sounds regulated ANS responses in healthy controls, as HR and HRV altered (up and down, respectively).

The surprising finding was that the type of response did not differ a great deal between the sounds though there were some differences, for example higher HR and lower HRV to the pleasant music compared to unpleasant music.

Even more surprisingly, the simple Shepard tones were associated with the same kind of response.


Study 1 Conclusions

The authors argue that the emotion of music, at least to the extent triggered by the music in the present paper, added nothing significant to ANS body responses.

Just the simple pulse of a basic music-like sound is enough to drive an ANS response. It is the beat and our body that appear most strongly to be linked.

The addition of emotions, memories, valence contagion might still add something (if the music was aimed correctly at the right person) but the simplest construction within music is sufficient to stimulate the mind and body.


Study 2

music heartIn Study 2 the authors varied the tempi of stimuli to see the effect on their body measures. They used a slow (90bpm) and fast (120 bpm) version of their pleasant and unpleasant musics; four conditions in total.

Consistent with Study 1, all four conditions elicited a higher HR and lower HRV compared to silence. There were no effects of varying tempo. This result challenges the idea that the beat of music is simply ‘entraining’ an ANS body/brain response, since the speed of the heard music does not appear to matter in this case.

Other previous studies found similar ‘lack’ of effects between tempi intervals as wide as 60bpm and 130bpm. Evidence is gathering that simple tempo has little effect, by itself, on ANS responses.


Study 3

The final study did not use the isochronous tones or ED measures, but apart from this showed that the CD patients showed the same pattern of response to the previous two studies, despite the inherent disruption to their autonomic system function.

Importantly CD patients reported no onset or worsening of symptoms during the tests. Therefore, music appeared to be a safe and, given the significant ANS reactions demonstrated, effective way to assess ANS activity in CD.



This is an important study that, most importantly, used a decent control for emotional music and showed that ANS responses might occur with any pulsed, pitched sound.

Pleasant music had the most significant effects in some of the studies, but overall the authors concluded that more basic constructs of music, ones that can’t be tied to emotions, are sufficient to stimulate ANS response.

The intriguing thing about the finding for me is that I always say that the type of music people hear is of the highest importance to their response, in regard to their wellbeing. I always thought it needed to be music that meant something to the person.

Now – this study does not dissuade me from my view, that individual music is the most powerful (after all, this was not tested). However, I like the revelation that we should not ignore the basic impacts of musical sound and their effects upon our minds and bodies.



My questions

My first question would be what about a non-isochronous pulse, an irregular rhythm? To what extent are we responding to the beat vs. any sound in the environment? Before I know this answer I would be cautious about making any direct links to ‘music’ effects.

My next question would be, do peoples’ normal emotional responses to music matter? Some people respond in a sensitive way to music and some don’t – so before we rule out the emotion impacts of music on ANS in everyone, a conclusion with strong implications for how music is used for wellbeing, I would like to see this factor tested. Perhaps with measures like the Gold MSI emotion subscale.

My third question would be, is pitch change important? Shepard tones are isochronous but they also steadily rise in pitch. This might trigger a response based on a reaction to the confusing nature of Shepard tones (they go up and up, but never get high). I would like to see a condition with a simple beat (i.e. a metronome) vs. pitched tones.

My final question would be about brain effects. I would like to see a link between brain and body responses in order to establish the underlying drivers for the physical responses that were measured in this study. I am sure that if anyone can manage such a brain study then it would be Stefan Koelsch!


The holiday

Right, Dear Reader, I have 4 precious days of holiday left in Spain and I am going to enjoy it. Especially the gentle May sunshine – is there any better way to spend an evening than by the beach with a good book and an ice-cold beer. Not for me 🙂

My next break after this one will fall in September when I will be getting married, so plenty to plan in the meantime! For now – RELAX.

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