A Musical Pharmacologist?
Vera Brandes is the director of a research program involving music and medicine at Paracelsus Private Medical University in Salzburg, Austria. Through various research projects, the goal of the program is to further integrate music therapy practices into medicinal treatments. Brandes has deemed herself the first “musical pharmacologist” in the sense that she is literally prescribing music in place of pills. Brandes has been active in the field since 1995, co-organizing the Mozart & Science congress as well as the I.M.A.R.A.A. (International Music and Research Association of Austria). Both organizations strive to create a dialogue between science and music, and to demonstrate how this pairing could be beneficial to many people.
Music and "Diseases of Civilization"
Brandes research team focuses on music therapy primarily for psychosomatic disorders. These disorders include insomnia, depression, as well as high blood pressure. Brandes promotes the concept that specific music can regulate activity in the brain. This regulation depends upon the interplay between chronobiology (biorhythms the body produces) and psychophysiology (the connection between physical processes with emotional reactions). Specific songs are then created to cater to specific maladies, providing the certain amount of “rhythm, harmony, or dissonance and timbre.” (Gurewitsch, pg. 4)
Your Brain on Music
The story of your brain on music is the story of an exquisite orchestration of brain regions, involving both the oldest and newest parts of the human brain, and regions as far apart as the cerebellum in the back of the head and the frontal lobes just behind your eyes.
Although the entire article centers on music and its affects on the brain, nowhere does it specifically state what neurological processes are activated when listening to music. Daniel Levitin, a neuroscientist at McGill University, has devoted an entire book to this, aptly named This is Your Brain on Music. Brain regions are stimulated in a specific order when listening to a piece of music:
The auditory cortex processes the components of sound; the frontal regions are responsible for determining the musical structure of a piece; the mesolimbic system is then activated. This system produces arousal, pleasure, as well as dopamine production. Increased dopamine levels are associated with positive mood, giving a scientific basis for why listening to music can induce positive feelings.
The cerebellum and basal ganglia, which process rhythm and meter, are active throughout the listening. Tapping along while listening to a piece of music also activates the cerebellum. Trying to remember a familiar song activates the hippocampus. Listening to lyrics involve Broca’s and Wernicke’s area. Performing and reading activate the visual cortex as well as the frontal lobe and motor cortex. Music often triggers emotional responses in listeners, activating the amygdala.
Music Therapy and Hypertension
In Brandes’ pilot study, her team researched music therapy as it related to hypertensive patients where “no organic cause can be found.” (Gurewitsch, pg. 3) Brandes hypothesized that preset kinds of music could alter the body’s parasympathetic tone, thus normalizing high blood pressure. The study tested thirty-two hypertensive patients between the ages of thirty and seventy-eight. There were also twenty-nine insomniacs serving as control subjects. The study was a month long, and required participants to listen to the specific music program five times a week for thirty minutes.
Patients also participated in three “stress and relaxation sessions” over the course of five weeks. The hypertensive patients were then assigned to treatment group. Group A received music between visits one and two. Group B received no music between visits one and two, but did between visits two and three. The control group received music between visits one and two. The results showed an increase in heart-rate variability in group A at the end of the three visits, when compared to the B and control group. Matthew Gurewtisch, author of Composing Concertos in the Key of Rx, cites this as a “major indicator of autonomous nervous function.” The automatic nervous function acts as a kind of control system, maintaining the body’s homeostasis.
Brandes commented that even after the study was over, positive feedback continued, as the heart frequency variability of the patients doubled. "The organism had assimilated the impulse given by the music and maintained it autonomously," Brandes states. "Just as is to be expected of an effective regulation therapy, in this case the ‘medicine’ music provided a way to help the body to help itself." The higher the heart rate variability of a patient, the more they are able to maintain a healthy blood pressure. As a result of the trials the control group had a better nights sleep, however had no change in heart rate variability. This further demonstrates that the increased heart rate variability in group A and B was a direct result of the music they were exposed to.
"A Glorified Jukebox?"
Brandes, Vera, Roland Haas, and Claudia Fischer. Sanoson: Music that Works.
Brandes, Vera. "The Effect of Receptive Music Therapy on Heart Rate Variability in Hypertensive Patients." Music-Medicine-Research Program. Paracelsus Private Medical University.
Levitin, Daniel J. This Is Your Brain on Music The Science of a Human Obsession. New York: Plume, 2007.
The New York Times 25 Mar. 2009.