ASU News

Study looks at relationship between music, mood

September 26, 2008

Oxytocin is a hormone that, according to recent research, is one of the central players in “modulating certain social behaviors in the mammalian brain.

”So why is a music professor at ASU studying oxytocin? Gary Hill, director of bands, has long been interested in the connection between mood and music, and he is taking a step toward finding more answers about how music affects our moods – and ability to learn – with a seed grant from the Institute for Humanities Research titled “Oxytocin: Fueling Music’s Power in Human Emotions, Memory and Restoration.”

“Few people would argue against the claim that music is good for you,” Hill wrote in his project narrative. “Yet, despite music’s omnipresence – its pervasiveness further amplified in ‘wired’ societies – our understanding of its core relationship to human evolution remains sketchy.

“The primary goal of this project is to address, through transdisciplinary protocols, specific questions concerning music’s primacy to humans, thereby reframing its meaning as an essential element of humanness.”

The grant includes a pilot study involving ASU music students and a conference on Oct. 10. For the research project, 10 students were asked to volunteer to have blood drawn six times – before and after they participated in a large musical ensemble, before and after playing in a small ensemble, and finally, before and after practicing their instruments alone, to see how the various musical situations affected their oxytocin levels. Before giving blood the first time, the students filled out questionnaires asking them to describe their musical experiences as they were growing up; their relationship with other musicians, music and their instrument; and the styles of music they most enjoy playing.

Then, prior to and after each blood draw, they were asked to complete a visual analog scale rating their feelings – if they were feeling sad or joyful, anxious or calm, tense or relaxed and so on. One trombonist  said he loves playing his instrument, but feels stress when he makes a mistake in a large ensemble. “If I play poorly or miss a note in a large ensemble I don't think, ‘Well there are a lot of people to cover up my mistake.’ Either way I messed up and I'm going to beat myself up for it.”

He added, “I've always had a love-hate relationship with the trombone. I've always loved playing it when I can perform the music very well. But I have some physical handicaps (specifically my tonguing ability) which has prevented me from performing at the level I wish to be at, regardless of how much I practice.”

A clarinetist said she enjoys playing both in large and small ensembles, and by herself.

“After playing in a large ensemble, I feel more relaxed and secure. Making music in a large group gives me a sense of belonging in a community,” she said.

“Everyone is working together towards the same goal, and we are usually trying to evoke some kind of emotion through our music. In a really focused rehearsal, I can easily be distracted from my everyday stressors and become consumed with the emotion of the music.”

Though the data from the bloodwork has not yet been analyzed, the psychosocial data shows that “in general, it seems that making music does have an overall positive effect on mood,” said Lisa Ehlers, a faculty associate in the Herberger College School of Music who is one of the research partners.

“It seems to affect joyfulness most positively, and does relatively less towards alleviating worry. Energy is also affected more positively.”

Three other faculty members are participating in the study. Dana Rosdahl, an associate professor in the College of Nursing and Healthcare Innovation, is researching the bio-behavioral influence of interventions and the oxytocin study will add to her understanding of heart-rate variability.

Kay Norton, an associate professor who teaches music history, has done research on the ways that music has been seen to positively affect the human condition, both historically and in modern culture. Her research mission with the oxytocin project is to “supplement our anecdotal knowledge that ‘music is good for you’ with current scientific findings.”

The final faculty partner is Robin Rio, an associate professor of music therapy.

The conference on Oct. 10, to be held in the Computing Commons and titled “Oxytocin and Music,” will include presentations by five scholars. The speakers and their topics are:

• Dr. Claudius Conrad, a research fellow at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute and Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center, who also is a concert pianist, ""Hormonal Changes Secondary to Music in Very Ill Intensive Care Patients."

• Dr. Walter Freeman, director of the Freeman Laboratory for Nonlinear Neurodynamics and professor emeritus of neurobiology at the University of California, Berkeley, "The Putative Role of the Intermittent Release of Oxytocin for Unlearning in Alteration With learning in Social contexts."

• Joanne V. Loewy, director of the Louis Armstrong Center for Music and Medicine at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York, title TBA.

• Steven Mithen, dean and professor of archaeology at the School of Human and Environmental Sicneces, University of Reading, UK, "Learning to Sing: Evolutionary and developmental Perspectives."

• Dr. Tores Theorell, professor emeritus of psychosocial environmental medicine, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, "Examining and Comparing Parasymphathetic System Activitiy in Pianists, Flute Players and Singers."

For more information about the conference or research, contact Hill at (480) 965-4392 or gary.hill">">