02 / JULY / 2020

How music affects us – part 2 (studies & experiments)

Since the middle of the 20th century, music psychologists have been carrying out a wide range of fascinating research into how our brains and bodies respond to music.

Two features of our world which are universal and arguably have been a feature of an earlier evolutionary development are our ability to create and respond to music, and to dance to the beat of time. In other words, meaning in music came to us before meaning given by words.

Explore the long list of musical experiments as a second part to the article https://awakefestival.ro/blog/how-music-affects-us/

Illustration artist https://www.behance.net/IvanBlazetic

Emotional response to music

Music is a true communication form. A 1990 study found that 80% of adults surveyed described experiencing physical responses to music, such as laughter, tears, and thrills. 

A further study performed at Cornell University in 1997 measured physiological responses of subjects listening to several different pieces of music that were generally thought to convey certain emotions. Each subject consistently matched his or her physiological response with the expected emotion of the music. When a person experiences thrills while listening to music, the same pleasure centers of the brain are activated as if they were eating chocolate, having sex or taking cocaine.

More details here.

Replaying music in your head

Replaying music in one’s mind is quite as engaging as listening to the music the first time. Brain scans of two groups of nonmusicians who either listened to music or imagined hearing it showed activation in the same area of the brain.

In a study, 25 people were asked to keep “stuck song” diaries for four weeks. Participants reported a total of 269 episodes (involving 199 songs), averaging a little more than one per week per person. For the most part, the internal music didn’t bother people. Some simply ignored it or went to sleep. Others silenced an internal melody by listening to real music—or by thinking about another tune. Still others simply listened to and tried to enjoy the internal music until it played out.


Mozart & Epilepsy

A recent study discovered that daily listening to Mozart K.448 was associated with reducing seizure frequency in adult individuals with epilepsy. When first six minutes of Sonata for two pianos in D major have been played to 29 individuals, 23 of them demonstrated a significant reduction in the amount of interictal epileptiform discharges. These results suggest that daily Mozart listening may be considered as an adjunctive therapeutic option to reduce seizure burden in individuals with epilepsy.


Music’s influence on the heart

Since 1980, researchers have turned their attention to the effects of music on the cardiovascular system. Most have looked at single variables, such as changes in blood pressure, heart rate, or blood flow through arteries. A few have looked at more holistic effects. For example:

At Massachusetts General Hospital, a nurse-led team found that people with heart disease who were confined to bed and who listened to music for 30 minutes had lower blood pressure, slower heart rates, and less distress than those who didn’t listen to music. 

At Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis, men and women who listened to music soon after undergoing cardiac surgery were less anxious and reported having less pain than those who just rested quietly

At the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore, researchers measured blood flow through the forearm (a stand-in for blood vessel health) as healthy volunteers listened to music or relaxation tapes. Blood flow increased significantly while the volunteers listened to music that evoked joy or to relaxation tapes, and decreased while they listened to music that provoked anxiety.

In a study from Hong Kong, older volunteers who listened to relaxing music for 25 minutes a day for four weeks lowered their systolic pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) by 12 points and their diastolic pressure (the bottom number) by 5 points, while a control group that didn’t listen to music had no change in blood pressure.

Music & speech patterns

Aniruddh D. Patel (1998) of the Neurosciences Institute in San Diego recorded findings that a specific region in the frontal lobe of the brain is employed in both constructing language and music, while other parts of the brain handle related facets of language and music processing.

Having already established music’s propensity as a form of communication, neurologists and musicologists may well assume the brain handles language and music together.

However, other studies have shown music and language are easily distinguishable in the brain.

Case study: The Russian composer Vissarion Shebalin constitutes an excellent case study to highlight this discovery. Shebalin suffered a stroke in 1953 resulting in the loss of his language capacities, more specifically the abilities to speak and understand speech. However, his music writing skills were unaffected and Shebalin continued to compose music until his death in 1963 (Weinberger, 2004). An additional useful study reveals that Alzheimer’s patients recall words to familiar songs much better than spoken words or information. In fact, they tend to recall words from songs about 62% of the time, while they only remember spoken material about 37% of the time (McCaffrey & Locsin, 2004).


Concert study

Most of the studies on music and health rely on individual listening, typically through headphones. That fits right in with the iPod generation’s approach—but what about old fashioned concert-going?

To find out, scientists in Sweden evaluated the habits of 12,982 people, recording their previous health, social networks, attendance at concerts and plays, education and income levels, and smoking and exercise patterns.

As expected, smoking and previous illness predicted early death; exercise, higher education, and financial security predicted long life. But there was also an unexpected finding: attendance at cultural events had a surprisingly powerful effect on mortality. In all, people who attended concerts and plays rarely or never were 1.57 times more likely to die during the study period than people who attended frequently. Occasional concertgoers were in between.

The apparent protection conferred by cultural events was not explained by differences in income, social networks, or education. The investigators speculate that music may stimulate specific regions of the brain, causing favorable changes in hormone levels or immune function. Or perhaps concertgoers have their own version of a religious experience as they take in what Shakespeare called “music from the spheres.”