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Physiological and Psychological Effects of Music

By: Sarah Stevenson, Dr. Paula Bobrowski, Dr. Ann Knipschild, and Dr. Jennifer
Any music listener will agree that music can evoke emotions such as pride, elation, or relaxation. Research suggests that music does more than that for humans: it stimulates various parts of the brain and bodily responses, including the release of stress hormones (Levitin, 2006; Linnemann, Kappert, Doerr, Strahler, & Nater, 2015). Our current research project addresses the questions: How do different kinds of music affect the human body physiologically and psychologically? Is the unconscious experience elicited by the autonomic nervous system analogous to what is experienced consciously through emotions?
To attempt to answer these questions, we conducted an experiment involving 88 students over three semesters who were enrolled in the Music and Science course at Auburn University. Students were fitted with a respiration belt, two electrodermal activity electrodes, and two electrocardiogram electrodes and were asked to listen to two-minute audio recordings of Igor Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring" (Song 1) and Erik Satie’s "Gymnopédie No. 1" (Song 2) as biofeedback software recorded their responses. After hearing each of the songs, the students completed a paper-and-pencil psychological survey in which they rated emotions elicited by the music clips.
The raw data were then analyzed to obtain various measurements (Figure 1). Results over all three semesters were not consistent or significant (p<0.05), most likely because the research protocol was updated and improved after each semester; however, some potential trends were identified over the course of the study. Measures of sympa thetic nervous system activity (skin conductance event count and sympathetic nerve activity) were higher during Song 1 than Song 2, with the exception of the sustained skin conductance level , which was higher in Song 2. This could mean that Song 1 elicited more overall changes in sk in conductance activity, even though the sustained electrodermal activity baseline was lower. Measures of parasympathetic nervous system activity (respiratory sinus arrhythmia and vagal nerve activity) were higher during Song 2. Beats per minute is an end organ measure, or a culmination of sympathetic an d parasympathetic nervous system activity; this measure indicated that there was more overall activity during Song 1 than during Song 2. Therefore, we can conclude that Song 1, “The Rite of Spring,” provoked more sympathetic activity and Song 2, “Gymnopédie No. 1,” provoked more parasympathetic activity.
The physiological results were analogous to the psychological results from the emotion surveys; participants rated their emotions as alert, attentive, and excited during Song 1 and relaxed, calm, and interested during Song 2. In conclusion, there was an overall more aroused response in terms of physiological and psychological activity during the more musically complex Song 1 (Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”).
These results will contribute to the body of knowledge regarding the relationship between music and science. In future semesters, we will continue to investigate the relationship between music and the body, examining specific qualities of music that elicit reactions. This information can then be applied to areas such as therapy, education, and healthcare.

Statement of Research Adivsor

The result of this research is already making a significant impact on the field of music and science. It is being used in general education courses as a demonstration project to inform students on the interrelatedness of science and music as well as to engage them in their own research projects. The research has been presented at multiple national forums and has resulted in funding for outreach projects and other grants. I predict the results of this project to reach far into the future and positively impact the quality of life for a wide range of populations.

Paula Bobrowski, Political Science; Ann Knipschild, Music; and Jennifer Robinson, Psychology.

Significant results from the study: skin conductance event count, skin conductance level, and sympathetic nerve activity are measures of the sympathetic nervous sytem. Respiratory sinus arrhythmia and vagal nerve activity are measures of the parasympathetic nervous system. Beats per minute is a culmination of both types of activity.

Last modified: February 17, 2017