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Week of wonder: The healing power of music

French N.G.O. Musique et Sante (Music and Health). Music therapy in children's ward. (BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
French N.G.O. Musique et Sante (Music and Health). Music therapy in children's ward. (BSIP/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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This is Part V of On Point’s Week of Wonder.

Many of us turn to music to feel better. But music can also help us physically heal.

Studies show music can affect our blood pressure and our heart rate – and even help us manage pain.

Today, On Point: Music’s power to heal not only your soul, but your body, as well.

Guests

Psyche Loui, associate professor of creativity and creative practice at Northeastern University. Director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory (MIND Lab). (@psycheloui)

Pier Lambiase, professor of cardiology at University College London and Barts Heart Centre. (@LambiasePier)

Also Featured

Suzanne Hanser, chair emerita and professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. (@suzannehanser)

Transcript

Part I

SUZANNE HANSER: At the first treatment, I would bring all of the instruments I could carry. So, I had a Native American flute.

I had a ukulele.

I had hand chimes that create a very resonant sound in this very bright steel glass environment in the chemotherapy unit.

CHAKRABARTI: The chemo unit is at the Center for Integrative Therapies at Boston’s Dana-Farber-Cancer Institute. The patients Suzanne Hanser was working with had metastatic breast cancer.

HANSER: And I would just improvise on some of these instruments and say, we’re just going to try some music and just let me know if you like it, if you want more, if we should try something else.

And then I would just suggest sometimes that they just breathe with the music or suggest that they just imagine being in a beautiful, comforting place.

CHAKRABARTI: Suzanne is a professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music. The women had agreed to work with her on research investigating the effects of how music changes a cancer patient’s psychological and physiological responses to treatment.

HANSER: And in the second session we would start with what they really appreciated from the first session and at the opportunity to improvise with me.

So I had a rain stick, something very simple to play. But when you close their eyes, it often transports you to a rain forest or a waterfall or some place in nature.

In the final session, we did some of that and also provided an opportunity for each woman to write a song. And I remember one woman saying, well, there’s just no way I could write music. And I said, Well, perhaps there’s something important you want to say to someone, someone that you love, someone who’s cared for you. And she said, Oh, I don’t know. I don’t really think of anything I’d like to say right now.

And I said, Well, how about writing a song to someone? Is there someone in your life that you like to write a song for? She said, No, I don’t really think so. And then I said, perhaps you’d like to write a song about our experience. You seem to have enjoyed our music therapy sessions.

And she just started singing. The music is here. The dancing is here. Back and forth we go. The music will help me. The music can aid me. I think it really will help. It is here when I need it. It is here when I want it. The music will be right for me.

Who would have thought? Some of the women participating in our study said, I never thought chemotherapy would be fun, but, you know, in these sessions they were providing a really beautiful atmosphere for processing what they were going through.

There’s a lot of research out there that speaks to the many physiological changes that happen during a music therapy session: decreased heart rate, decreased blood pressure, their perception of pain. Individuals who had chronic pain, they didn’t necessarily have their pain go away.

But several reflected on how that process, where they were listening to very meaningful music changed. Well, the way that they experienced pain for one person. He said that the throbbing nature of his pain improved, and it became less noticeable. The importance of that is not that perhaps music can relieve pain.

But if a person sees that they can manage the pain, that the pain they thought was constant can actually change while they’re engaged with music, then they know that they can somehow take control of this pain.

Everyone can probably find a piece of music that they love being able to listen to that piece of music. When we’re in a crowded, noisy environment or we’re in a physician’s waiting room, wherever we might be, we can use music to change our mood.

We have music on our playlist that we love. We have music that is constantly changing the way we feel. So, reflecting on how music affects you will teach you about the music that you might want to play when you’re feeling really agitated, or the music that you might need when you’re feeling really lonely or depressed.

A musical experience that engages someone, that makes them dance. That makes them think. That makes them remember. That helps them go back to a wonderful opportunity to live life to its fullest.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Suzanne Hanser, professor of music therapy at Berklee College of Music, who helped establish the music therapy program at the Zakim Center for Integrative Therapies at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. So can music help heal the body as much as it can heal the soul? That’s what we’re going to take a look at today. And joining us now to help us with that is Psyche Loui.

She’s the director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory, or the MIND Lab at Northeastern University, and also an associate professor of creativity and creative practice there. Professor Loui, welcome to On Point.

PSYCHE LOUI: Thank you for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all I find that everyone who comes into this area of research has a very interesting story about what drew them to it.

So how did you first get involved in the idea of music and not just the mind, but the body?

LOUI: I’ve always enjoyed listening to music, and I’ve also been playing music since I was about five. I started piano when I was five and violin when I was seven, like many Asian kids. I was also pre-med. I also wanted to take science courses and grow up to be a doctor.

And as part of that, in high school, this is in Vancouver, in Canada, I went to for volunteer in a nursing home at the time. And like my other friends, I would go in and help these older adults, bring them food and chat with them. And the average age there was 87. So a lot of these older adults had dementia.

They didn’t know, some of them didn’t recognize their family members. Some of them didn’t know what year it was. And then there was one time when I was in the dining hall, and I noticed there was a piano in the cafeteria. And I just started playing and I was working on some Beethoven piano sonata at the time.

And so I just started playing that. And then one of the nurses threw something at me and said, “Hey, Psyche, how much do we have to pay you to lighten it up?”

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

LOUI: And I didn’t know what I could play. So I actually found some music that was folk tunes that was in the piano bench. So things like Little Brown Jug and Clementine.

So these kinds of well-known traditional tunes. So I just started sight reading them and then amazingly these older adults started humming along and not only humming along, but harmonizing and remembering all the words. And so these are, some of these folks are so far along in dementia that they didn’t really know sentences. They couldn’t finish their own sentences, but for them to remember all the words and to remember the harmonies, something must be getting through to them. So that really made a strong impression on me, and I ended up studying psychology and music and doing neuroscience of music.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, I have to let people know since you can’t see Professor Loui right now, you’re wearing the best t-shirt.

LOUI: It’s my favorite shirt.

CHAKRABARTI: It says, “Music plus science equals sexy.” So that was your first, that was your first exposure to actually something that you’ve told us.

Humanity has seemed to seem to know for thousands of years, that there is this profound connection between obviously music in the mind and music in the body. You go back to the ancient Greeks.

LOUI: In some ways Pythagoras, ancient Greeks knew that there is some vibrations in sounds, like sounds are after all vibrations.

They are air molecules as they hit your ears. And it was since ancient Greek times that we knew that sounds that were related to each other in mathematical ratios tend to sound good together. So if I could just have my violin with me here. If I play an A, that’s 440 hertz, so 440 cycles per second, in general. But if I play an octave above that, those two notes sound good together. And the second note, the higher note is twice the frequency. So 880 hertz. And so these perfect integer ratios, like two to one, three to two, when you play them together, they sound consonant and in fact, the word symphony, that’s where it comes from, right?

So it means sounding good together. So it’s been since Pythagorean times that we’ve known about this. And Apollo the god of music was also the god of medicine, right? So there’s been a long-time link between music and sound and health.

CHAKRABARTI: That is my favorite fact of the month. Apollo, the god of music was also the god of medicine.

Now listen, we have just a few seconds before we have to take our first break, Professor Loui, but can you just describe to me, when music first enters the ear, right? Just tell me quickly, how many parts of the brain does it actually branch out into?

LOUI: Oh so many. Maybe not every single part of the brain, but many areas of the brain.

And I should say that music doesn’t only start with the auditory system, right? So we think in general that sounds hit your eardrums and with certain vibrations and so it starts with the auditory system. But of course, when I’m playing violin, you’re also watching me, right? So there’s this auditory and visual connection, and then you’re also using your attention, you’re also using your working memory. So all these different cognitive and emotional areas are involved. So I would say maybe hundreds.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. And also motor movement, reward, motivation, all those things. So quite a complex reaction we’re having when we watch and hear music.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today we’re talking about if and how music can help not only your mind and your soul, but your body as well. And let me tell you, when we told you, On Point listeners, that we’re going to do this topic. We got inundated with your stories about how music has helped you.

Here’s Christine Rogers from Columbus, Ohio.

ROGERS: Oh my gosh, you picked my absolutely favorite topic in the whole wide world. Music has been how I have been able to function in society. It stayed with me, whether it was the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Stadium Arcadium” album, and Coldplay’s “X&Y” in 2005 and 2006.

That got me through the first stages of recovery from an eating disorder. To the Bach Brandenburg concertos that just are my go-to when I’m feeling nostalgic or missing family.

CHAKRABARTI: So that’s Christine in Columbus, Ohio. Richard also called us from Shenandoah County, Virginia, and he had quite a story. Earlier this year, his best friend, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. And Richard’s friend had been married only a few months. So one night after a church vigil, his friend’s widow called him.

RICHARD: And said, “I can’t sleep.” And I said, “I don’t know how you can sleep. I can barely sleep.” So I sang her the first verse of Garth Brooks’ song “The Dance”:

Lookin’ back on the memory of

The dance we shared, beneath the stars above

For a moment all the world was right

How could I have known that you’d ever say goodbye

RICHARD: Within the end of that few moments, I heard her sleeping. So that was definitely a benefit from being able to sing a nice song.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s Richard from Shenandoah County, Virginia. Professor Psyche Loui is with us today. She’s director of the Music, Imaging, and Neural Dynamics Laboratory, or the MIND Lab at Northeastern University.

And Professor Loui, you were nodding there when you heard Richard say that just singing that one verse from Garth Brooks helped her, his grieving friend fall asleep. What, why were you nodding?

LOUI: I think there’s something about music that can relax and also reduce agitation. We actually had a former participant in my studies who had lost her mother.

And she was grieving for her mother. And in doing so she sought out some brain stimulation treatment actually. And she actually was quite sad to report that after receiving the brain stimulation, she no longer felt the emotions that she used to feel for music. And so there’s something about that intrinsic connections between music and the reward system that I think is valuable and treasured in human, in pretty much every human society.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. And the example of helping fall asleep, also, even in the midst of grief, was quite powerful to me. Because clearly there’s, like you said, reduction of agitation, some kind of physical relaxation and just the ability for whatever the brain needs to do to fall asleep.

And it was brought about by one verse of a Garth Brooks song. As I mentioned, you have brought your violin. Here into the studio. And I’d love to just basically do a live experiment about what music can do to the brain. Okay. Experiment in quotes. Do you have a couple of tunes that that you have as an example of different, how different types of music produce different responses?

LOUI: So it’s a little hard to do a whole, I wish I had a backup band, but there’s certainly a few demonstrations I can do. For example, maybe I’ll make this a little interactive. Maybe I’ll start playing along a dance tune. Here’s an upbeat dance tune. It’s called St. Anne’s Reel. That’s a fiddle tune. And I’d like you to clap along to it. Okay?

CHAKRABARTI: Okay.

(PLAYS SONG)

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

LOUI: So that’s quite fun. I hope I stayed on beat. I didn’t throw you off, did I?

LOUI: Yeah, absolutely. You stayed on beat. And it turns out that there’s this famous Parrott called Snowball that can also dance to on beat to music, right? And not only can it dance on beat to music, but if you speed up the music, it can dance faster.

If you slow down the music, it’s slower. So it’s not just copying, right? It’s actually phase locking to music. So that’s really demonstrates to us how the auditory system is really densely connected to the motor system. And like that clapping by itself is very fun, right?

And so I don’t need to tell youth or to have lots of musical training for people to go dance together or rock out together at concerts and there’s something about that experience of moving together and dancing together in time to music that seems to bring people together, right?

So music as a vehicle for social bonding, and this was especially, of course, important when in, during a time when social interaction was limited, so during the pandemic, for example, your live music became online performances and still the number of people that kind of moved on to online performances as a way to bring people together.

I think that’s a really strong example of how music can bring people together.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And I think the thing that really sticks with me, as you’re saying, it’s intrinsic, right? There’s something in the brain that makes that happen. Okay. So that was an upbeat tune. What about, we got a lot of people who called us and said that sometimes they turn deliberately to more mellow or meditative music, because it helps them, as well.

So do you have an example of that?

LOUI: Sure. I’ll play a little bit of solo Bach that I think is quite meditative. This is the prelude from Sonata No. 1.

(PLAYS SONG) 

LOUI: So that’s a slower and more reflective tune. I think there’s something about the solo violin that can be especially introspective, as well. And of course, Bach wrote so many tunes, some of which are originally dance tunes. This was not one of them. So you hear a more variable tempo, you hear more differences in harmony.

And so I think that added complexity maybe brings folks to be a little bit more out of the groove mode and into the more absorbed, listening mode.

CHAKRABARTI: And since we’re trying to understand today then what impact that experience of the music might have, not just on the mind or emotions, but the body, as well.

What do we know about that?

LOUI: There’s so much, right? So have you ever gotten chills when you listen to music?

CHAKRABARTI: Oh yeah.

LOUI: Oh, all the time?

CHAKRABARTI: Absolutely. For sure.

LOUI: Great.

CHAKRABARTI: Even songs, actually especially happens with songs I know really well, but it still produces that like shiver, right?

LOUI: So there’s an effect of familiarity, right? So what we’re seeing is that music that you love, especially music that gets you these peak emotional experiences like chills or hair standing on end, engage is not only the auditory system of the brain, but also the reward system of the brain. So the network of your brain that’s normally active for food, and for sex and for drugs or for gambling, actually is not only more active, but more connected and correlated in its activity with the auditory system in the brain.

So in a different way, you can think of music as an auditory channel into those reward systems. And we know that reward system is important for multiple forms of motivated behavior, right? So when animals seek out food, right? That’s because of that reward system. So the dopaminergic neurotransmitter system that’s at play here. Yeah, so I think of music as a way to get at this very general system, right?

Two general systems, one of which is the motor system, and that’s also connected to language, right? Because we need the motor system to be able to speak. And another system being the reward system. And together that gets you the meditative side and also the more kind of upbeat side.

So different kinds of effects on the body.

CHAKRABARTI: I just want you to know that there are a couple of more examples that I’d love you to play on your violin, but we’re going to do that a little later in the show. Okay? Because there’s just so much to talk about. And I would love to hear you play more in a few minutes.

But let’s just return briefly to the many examples that we received from On Point listeners about how music has helped them and particularly helped their bodies. There were just so many incredible stories we received. So here’s one from Lydia from Freeport, Maine, who called us with a very vivid example.

LYDIA: I, about 10 years ago was skiing in Northern Maine and going down a hill, my skis got tangled and I snapped my femur, which a broken femur, I later learned, is one of the most painful injuries known to humans. And my husband and I were way off the grid. We were far away from the cabins we were staying in.

And so he had to ski for help to try to rescue me.

CHAKRABARTI: Lydia understandably got scared, both because of the pain she was experiencing and because her body was starting to get very cold. But then:

LYDIA: I remember Garrison Keeler saying once that “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” the Lutheran hymn, a Norwegian fight song. And I’m Norwegian by Heritage and Lutheran in my background.

And so I lay there in the snow with my broken femur and started singing “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” at the top of my lungs.

And when I got tired of that, I sang every other song I could think of. And when help finally arrived everyone was shocked at how conscious and coherent and calm I was.

CHAKRABARTI: And Lydia says she kept singing as rescuers carried her down with a snowmobile, and she kept singing in her three-hour ambulance ride to a hospital in Portland, Maine.

LYDIA: They were incredulous how little morphine I had used. And I give singing and music credit for that. Singing kept me warm and distracted. It made me feel less alone as I lay there in the snow by myself. And I think it saved my life.  

CHAKRABARTI: Let’s bring Pier Lambiase into the conversation. He’s a professor of cardiology at University College London and Bart’s Heart Center, and he is with us from London.

Professor Liambiase, welcome to On Point.

PIER LIAMBIASE: Thank you very much. Hello.

CHAKRABARTI: So tell us about the role that music can play with pain management. Have you seen this in your own patients?

LIAMBIASE: Yeah, certainly I have. And we have some patients who cannot necessarily have certain drugs for pain relief because of their condition.

And we’ve used music giving patients headphones to listen to their favorite music. And that’s a very important point that Professor Hanser made, that if it’s their favorite music they listen to, it’s very distracting and enables us to do procedures that sometimes we would need very heavy sedation or pain relief for.

So we found it very helpful for certain patients.

CHAKRABARTI: Why does it work? How does it work?

LIAMBIASE: That’s a very complex question, and I don’t think we really have all the answers to that. I think, certainly, there’s an element that it can be distracting and take people away from their perceived experience. Also, there are physical effects of music on the circulation and the blood pressure.

And we have data to show that certain types of music certainly can affect blood pressure and heart rate responses. And if the music is slowing the heart rate, there can be reductions in blood pressure and levels of stress in these individuals, or in everybody really.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Loui, did you want to add to that about pain and music?

LOUI: Yeah, I think part of what struck me about that “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is what a large backing choir there was in that performance. And I think going back to this idea that music is important for social bonding, this feeling that somebody is going through it with you is also, I think, important for many reasons that including pain reduction. And So I think that’s part, that’s one thing.

Another thing that Pier said that was very striking is that you see that music can reduce blood pressure and heart rate. And I would add that we’re seeing that the Insula, which is an area in the brain that has dense connections towards the Vagus nerve and therefore towards the peripheral nervous system.

Turns out to be part of this chills response as well, right? So when you’re listening to music that you really love and you’re getting a strong emotional experience to it, the auditory cortex is connecting through the Insula to other areas of the reward system. So I think that kind of heart, brain, body connection is really tapped into by musical sounds, and especially in music that we choose to listen to because of that added effective familiarity.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Liambiase, you’re a professor of cardiology specifically at UCL. Can you tell us just a little bit more about the kinds of experiments or research that you’ve done about regarding music and heart health?

LIAMBIASE: So we’ve studied a number of aspects. We started out actually by looking at the effects of mental stress on the heart, and we’ve done studies where we’ve played films to patients and also looked at asking them very difficult questions.

To put them under stress and shown stress effects on the heart. With regard to music, often if you play a film and you remove the music from the film, you get a very different flattened response. So the music itself is influencing the electrical behavior of the heart in a particular scene that might be perceived as a very stressful scene, but in the absence of the music, it’s gone.

This is what, for example, Alfred Hitchcock was very effective at using violins, for example, in his movies. To put individuals on edge.

CHAKRABARTI: So the music itself is influencing the electrical behavior of the heart, that is remarkable.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: We got a tremendous response from listeners when we told them we were going to talk about this.

So I want to share a couple more of their stories. First, this is Michael Alexander. He called us from Los Angeles, and he works in a nonprofit in the performing arts world, and he’s been doing that for a half century. He was the director of Grand Performances, a free outdoor summer performing art series in downtown LA for 27 years.

And he said early in his career, there was a moment once when an audience member approached him.

ALEXANDER: After a concert, a gentleman came up to me to thank me for our programs. He proceeded to tell me that he had been homeless for 63 days. He had a heart attack and had been hospitalized. He had no health insurance and therefore lost his home and his car.

He said he had set two sets of clothes, and these were the good ones. He told me that if it were not for our programs in the public library, he would’ve gone crazy. This was my first testimonial from someone telling me how the arts were saving his life. I realized then that all of us working in the non-profit arts were keeping society from going crazy.

CHAKRABARTI: It’s Michael from LA. Here’s Molly Spell from Richmond, Virginia, who told us that every time she listens to Clair de Lune on the piano, it makes her feel wonderfully sad.

SPELL: It’s been a song that I go to when I just need to embrace feeling sad. A few months ago, I lost a dear pet and finally laid her to rest the other day and just wanted to get in touch with my feelings.

And so I put on Clair de Lune, and I had a really good cry, and it just centered me.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s Molly from Richmond, Virginia. Thank you, Molly for that story. Professor Loui, I have to say we have very keen listeners in the On Point audience, and Sue Tory wrote in on Facebook regarding the Reel that you were playing earlier and that I was clapping to. And Sue says,

“Meghna! You are clapping on one and three. That’s okay for traditional Reel, but uncool otherwise. Please ask Professor Loui about the difference between clapping on one and three versus two and four.”

LOUI: Oh, that’s so fun.

CHAKRABARTI: (LAUGHS)

LOUI: And I think there’s something about, you’re supposed to clap on the backbeat, right?

This idea of playing on the backbeat that’s playing with your expectations. And I think that gets into why groove, why people love groovy music so much, right? Like this idea that, “Oh, I can, if I got a groove, then I’m having a better day.” So let’s do a little demo, right? Okay. Billie Jean.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, of course.

LOUI: That song. So 1, 2, 3, 4.

(PLAYS BILLIE JEAN)

So that higher note is a little bit displaced, right? So it’s a little bit earlier. So that sets up the groove. If I had done:

(PLAYS BILLIE JEAN ON BEAT) 

LOUI: That’s now on the beat and there’s something about it that just really kills the groove. So this a little bit more complexity, a little bit more playing with expectations is I think what the reward system of the brain is latching onto.

CHAKRABARTI: Do you know that little demonstration that you just did, it utterly transforms that piece.

Billie Jean from the first three notes. And then that slight shift, I was like, “Wow, that’s really boring without it.” Amazing. Okay. Psyche and Pier, what I want to keep pressing forward on, what we know or what we are learning, let’s put it that way, between the connection between music, the brain, and then the body more wholly.

Professor Lambiase, I’m thinking of different body systems, the immune system, inflammation, things like that. What can you say that research is telling us along those lines?

LAMBIASE: I can start with things that are much easier for us to measure. So for example, with the cardiovascular system there’s very good work that’s shown that certain types of music or certain operatic arias, for example, Nessun Dorma, they have a frequency of six cycles per minute. And when individuals listen to that, there’s an entrainment that happens.

There’s an alignment that occurs between the blood pressure and the heart rate. So there are natural bio rhythms of fluctuations in blood pressure called mayer waves. They’re the same cycle, the same frequency, as for example, ness and Dorma, and it’s this alignment that is thought to result in people appreciating the music more and really getting an emotional response with the music.

CHAKRABARTI: No, I was just going to quickly jump in here. Forgive the interruption professor.

LAMBIASE: Sure.

CHAKRABARTI: It just occurred to me that we’re referencing a lot of Western music, but of course, music is a totally universal thing to humanity. So we see these similar patterns in every culture and in every culture’s music.

LAMBIASE: Yeah, I think it’s a fundamental aspect that we all have the same physiology.

And there are natural cycles in the brain and in the nervous system, which you wonder whether the original composers of the music that we listened to way back, hundreds of thousands of years ago, were detecting these natural cycles within their own physiology and then reflecting that in the music they created it was basically with a drum.

And that then also gave them a positive sensation. And you get this sort of positive feedback from the music. It could be something as fundamental as that. Because they’re natural oscillators in the brain, as it were, which controlled our respiratory breathing rate, our heart rate, and other physiological processes.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Loui?

LOUI: Yeah, I definitely agree that there’s oscillations and entrainments going on, and I would add that it’s not only in the heart, but brain waves or neurons, the way that neurons communicate with each other to enable behavior. That hinges on different frequencies of these rhythmic frame and rhythmic brainwaves that are in tune with each other.

So maybe one thing that music does is attunes your brainwaves and attunes your body towards certain frequencies that might be important for brain health. And we know that, for example, in neuro degenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, there’s a desynchronization or disruption of this rhythmic activity of the brain.

So if we can use music to retrain or retune those desynchronized activities, then we might be able to use music for specifically tailored good.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. So can you tell me more about that? Because this comes up over and over again about music and memory and then specifically in patients who are suffering dementia or Alzheimer’s.

I’ve heard any number of stories. We started with one.

LOUI: Right. And I think that’s also a really important point about cultures, right? So every human society has music, but it has different forms of music. Even though they might all have sound or they might use bodies to make sounds, but the sounds that come out are quite different, right?

So the musical scales in Chinese culture, for example, is quite different from musical scales in Western cultures. But I think what the brain is able to do, regardless of culture, is form expectations for the sounds that are common in your culture.

So in a way, the culture is the kind of filter, and I think that there are certain times during your lifespan, let’s say during adolescence, when music is especially rewarding, right? So if you ask an older adult, think about music in your life that has been especially important for you, chances are they’ll bring up something from their adolescence.

So there’s something about music forming those autobiographical associations, and then that engages the reward system, as well. So I think that’s why when we’re designing music-based interventions for Alzheimer’s disease or for neurodegenerative disorders, more generally, it’s important to let participants choose their own music, and also to think through a tailored experience, to think through what exactly it’s doing, how it’s targeting the nervous system and the body more generally.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. Professor Lambiase, tell me more then. We talked about some things that we can more easily measure in the body as it responds to music.

Are there other systems that we have seen that music is having an impact on?

LAMBIASE: You certainly can measure. The things that we can measure are pretty crude, really? So you can measure skin conductance, which is a measure of sweating and the blood flow within the skin. You can also measure blood flow in the brain, so there’s evidence that in time with changes in blood pressure, which occur.

You can also measure changes in cerebral blood flow, which correlate with the effects on blood pressure. So there are some simple things that we can measure that align with these responses to the music. When you ask about immunity and whether your immune system’s affected by music, there’s very early data to suggest that the Vagus nerve influences the immune system as well.

And also there could be effects that we’re not even really touching upon yet. That could be influenced by music as well through the autonomic nervous system, which supplies the whole, which regulates the whole body at a subconscious level.

CHAKRABARTI: The Vagus nerve. Remind me what that is.

LAMBIASE: There are two types of nerves, one’s with adrenaline, that’s called the adrenergic system.

That’s why your heart rate goes faster in a heart fight or flight response. And the Vagus, which slows the heart down. It’s a relaxing nerve, as it were, for the nerves, for the circulation and for the other organ systems. And it has an important effect on even your, the triggering of heart rhythm disorders, for example, which is our field, if people who faint frequently, they have a very strong, we call it a vagal response, a vasovagal faint when that reflex is much too strong and they faint much more easily, and that’s due to this increased activity of the Vagus nerve.

And actually, there are a large number of ganglia nerves around the heart, which are now we’re starting to target for treatment to prevent dangerous heart rhythms or even to treat recurrent fainting.

CHAKRABARTI: Wow. So I want to ask about if there’s another side to the coin here, right?

Because we’ve been talking about the positive impacts of music here. Professor Loui, can certain types of music or notes or rhythms or tones, have a negative impact, if that’s even a way of looking at it?

LOUI: I guess if it’s too loud then it could blow out your ears. It would hurt your auditory system.

But there are some folks that think, maybe use music in an unhealthy way. So for example, you’re using music to regulate or instead of regulating a mood change, using it to stay in an unhealthy ruminative state. So we have some survey scales to look at that healthy versus unhealthy music use scale.

But I would say, in general, music, because it is engaging so many different areas of the brain and it is a reward seeking, right? So looking for music in itself is something that’s a proactive and activity that gives you this sense of agency, which is helpful for many different kinds of motivated behavior.

I think just the act of looking for music to listen to and then listening to it, and in training to it, clapping along and singing along is generally useful for health and for wellbeing and quality of life.

CHAKRABARTI: Professor Lambiase, it occurs to me then, is there a role for music, or could music be a tool, an additional tool for physiological healing? Maybe in areas where traditional medicine runs up against some obstacles.

LAMBIASE: Yeah, I think there’s definitely a window and an opportunity to utilize music for therapy, and we’re starting to see that. As you’ve heard some examples already from patients and from Prof. Loui to do with treating anxiety, dementia.

Also, the issue is how do you actually tailor the music? And you’ve heard already it’s music that you like, and the music you appreciate. And we’re working on using an app that maybe gives you some information, some feedback about how the music, at least from the cardiovascular point of view, is influencing your heart and your circulation to see whether we can find pieces of music for patients to see if it can improve their blood pressure, can be used as a therapy, independent of drugs, but in a very tailored way.

And that’s work I’m doing with Elaine Chu, who’s one of my colleagues working in this area. So I think there is an opportunity to utilize it on a number of aspects of medicine. It’s just how do you get a precise, measurable response, which is what we need in medicine to prove efficacy, to prove a real effect rather than the placebo effect.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. And Professor Loui, I understand you’re also working on how to tailor music, and not just the sound, but the entire experience of music for individual patients.

LOUI: Yeah. We’re interested in this idea of neural entrainment and how that, music can be used to retune those disrupted brain rhythms and Alzheimer’s disease.

And so one thing we are doing is working with a startup company called Oscillo Biosciences. We’re adding lights as a light show to music and the lights, you can use them to flicker in time to music. So think of your Christmas lights that are flickering in time to music. If you add an additional layer of frequencies to it, then that can be additionally used to stimulate the brain maybe in frequencies that are disrupted or impaired in Alzheimer’s disease.

So I’m thinking of that as a way to tailor the experience of music in a way that would be helpful for specifically targeted disruptive brain networks.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Wow. We’re wrapping up the conversation now and I have one last question for both of you. And Professor Lambiase, I’ll start with you. Name one piece of music that you turn to when you just want to affect some kind of physical change in your own body.

LAMBIASE: I did think about this before just as I sat down here today, and there are a few pieces of music I particularly like usually just to wake me up as it were or get me going. And I like U2, the band U2. So for example, New Year’s Day for example, is particularly motivating, energetic tune that I like.

And so I’ll use that if I’m going out on a bike ride for example, or I need to cheer myself up.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. And Professor Loui, same question to you.

LOUI: For me, Rachmaninoff. Piano Concerto No. 2. That always makes my heart beat faster.

 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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