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

September 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Health

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.

Music’s role in heart health

August 1, 2009 by  
Filed under Health


I am a great believer in the restorative power of music and have written before about its role in helping reduce blood pressure and anxiety in cancer patients and there carers. Now it seems it can also help aftercare rehabilitation for heart and stroke patients.

One reason why this makes sense is that our blood flow and respiratory rates can actually change their rhythm to be in synch with music according to a study by Italian researchers at Pavia University and published in Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association. They had found in an earlier study in 2006 that music with faster tempos resulted in increased breathing, heart rate and blood pressure and that when the music was paused there was a fall in all those rates.

Not sure why this is news, they just needed to have asked women who knit in time to music and find themselves racing up a sleeve whenever a military march came on the radio or they were listening to a band concert in the park and the strains of Yesterday reduced their stitch rate by half! Now they have found that swelling crescendos in the volume stimulate our body and that gradual decreases in volume makes us relax. I am sure there is an emotional component here as we respond viscerally to music which then affects our whole body systems but it is clear that music does induce a continuous, dynamic — and to some extent predictable — change in our cardiovascular system and that it is a two way process.

So if you want a healthy heart listen to music that stimulates it a little, and also offers relaxation – for myself I would add in joy as well, but that isn’t covered in the research. If you want to try the experiment for yourself they played their subjects random selections including Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony; an aria from Puccini’s Turandot; a Bach cantata (BMW 169); Va Pensiero from Nabucco; Libiam Nei Lieti Calici from La Traviata — as well as two minutes of silence. The profile of music (crescendo or decrescendo) was continuously tracked by the cardiovascular and respiratory systems and change was particularly marked when the music was rich in emphasis, like opera.

The technical stuff:

Every crescendo in the music led to increased narrowing of blood vessels under the skin, increased blood pressure and heart rate and increased respiration. In each music track the extent of the effect was proportional to the change in music profile.

During the silent pause, changes decreased, with blood vessels under the skin dilating and marked reductions in heart rate and blood pressure. Unlike with music, silence reduced heart rate and other variables, indicating relaxation.

Music phrases around 10 seconds long, like those used in “Va Pensiero” and “Libiam Nei Lieti Calici,” synchronized inherent cardiovascular rhythm, thus modulating cardiovascular control.

We know that music reduces stress, boosts athletic performance and enhances motor skills of people with neurological impairments and is frequently being used as a therapeutic tool for heart and stroke patients. What’s new is that this study shows that alternating between fast and slow music (crescendo and decrescendo within the same music track) may be potentially more effective.

If you are interested in the music that was used in the clinical trial at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre then visit