One ‘prescription’ that could help treat emotional and physical pain – with no side-effects

September 15, 2010

Music is not only the food of love and the healer of the soul but now it seems from new research that it could benefit the treatment of depression and the management of physical pain.

Glasgow Caledonian University researchers are using an innovative combination of music psychology and leading-edge audio engineering by looking in more detail than ever before at how music conveys emotion. I suspect that many of us — as with so much of expensively funded research — know this already as it is almost instinctive to turn to music to enhance or change our mood.

What is new is that they are suggesting that the use of music to help regulate a person’s mood could lead to promoting the development of music-based therapies to tackle conditions like depressive illnesses and help alleviate symptoms of with physical pain.

They explain that the impact of a piece of music goes so much further than thinking that a fast tempo can lift a mood and a slow one can bring it down. Music expresses emotion as a result of many factors including the tone, structure and other technical characteristics of a piece. Lyrics can have a big impact too. But so can purely subjective factors: where or when you first heard it, whether you associate it with happy or sad events and so on. This project is the first step towards taking all of these considerations – and the way they interact with each other – on board according to Dr Don Knox, project leader.

Their method of assessing and analysing the impact of music is to ask each volunteer to listen to pieces of previously unheard contemporary popular music and assign each one a position on a graph. One axis measures the type of feeling (positivity or negativity) that the piece communicates; the other measures the intensity or activity level of the music. The research team then assess the audio characteristics that the pieces falling into each part of the graph have in common. They then look at parameters such as rhythm patterns, melodic range, musical intervals, length of phrases, musical pitch and so on.

According to Dr Knox music falling into a positive category might have a regular rhythm, bright timbre and a fairly steady pitch contour over time. If tempo and loudness increase, for instance, this would place the piece in a more ‘exuberant’ or ‘excited’ region of the graph. You might like to try this at home for yourself dear reader and see what results you come up with.

It is envisaged that your doctor could soon be putting music on a prescription that is tailored to suit the your individual needs – though quite how they’re going to train doctors to do this so they don’t end up giving you gangsta rap when a bit of Vivaldi might do the trick I am not entirely sure.

However, I certainly welcome the promotion of music as therapy and so let me be the first to offer you a “prescription” to help lift your mood. If you follow this link it will take you to a recording of a male acappella group from Corsica singing in the most spine tingling and inspiring way that I will be astounded if you don’t feel better after listening to it. They have the rather bizarre name of Barbara Furtuna (though if John Wayne could be called Marion I suppose anything is possible) and all you have to do is to press control and click to follow this link – Listen to them: here.


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