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Music and Emotion: How Understanding Their Connection Could Impact Autism Treatment

October 14, 2010
by Shannon Firth
Scientific studies about the relationship between music and emotion could impact treatment for children with communication disorders such as autism, and for patients living with Alzheimer’s disease.

How Musicians Hear

When Nick Coleman, a music critic and music lover, suddenly lost hearing in his right ear, he also lost his ability to appreciate the emotional resonance of music. “I used to hear ‘buildings’ … three-dimensional forms of architectural substance and tension … I now only get architectural drawings … I can’t enter music and I can’t perceive its inner spaces.”

Coleman’s story highlights an ability that many of us take for granted—the ability to extract emotion from music.

Recognizing music’s emotional resonance, researchers at Northwestern University found a scientific means of researching the relationship between music and emotion by isolating a noise and measuring how people’s brains responded to it.

Through careful experimentation they uncovered a significant relationship between musical instruction and the ability to perceive emotion in sound. Their study was published in the European Journal of Neuroscience in March.

An interdisciplinary team of researchers led by Dana Strait, a former autism therapist, chose 30 subjects, all right-handed men and women between the ages of 19 and 35. They used tests of activity in the brain stem gauging timbre, timing and pitch to identify a “scientifically validated emotion sound.”

They categorized subjects as musicians or non-musicians. The musicians were further subdivided into groups depending on the age when they began their training, and the number of years they trained for.

Then subjects watched a nature video with subtitles and listened to a 250-millisecond sound of a crying baby through headphones; their sensitivity to the sounds was recorded through electrodes on their scalps.

Unlike that of non-musicians, the brain stem activity of musicians showed a fixation on the most complex aspects of the “distressed baby” sound bite—the segments with the highest degree of “emotional content.” The finding was most prominent in the nervous systems of musicians who’d begun practicing earlier and studied for longer.

Strait said, “That their brains respond more quickly and accurately than the brains of non-musicians is something we’d expect to translate into the perception of emotion in other settings.”

The researchers noted that the precise strength of these musicians in processing and encoding sounds is a weakness for children with language disorders, such as autism and Asperger’s syndrome’s.

Therefore the study’s co-author and neuroscientist Nina Kraus surmised that the study’s results support the theory that musical experience could help children who have difficulty processing language.

Understanding Music Therapy

The Nordoff-Robbins Music Therapy Center explains the benefits of music therapy: “For those with communicative disorders it can enhance expressive and interactive ability; for people isolated by illness or disability it can provide a means of socialisation, sharing and community.”

In a short YouTube video from the Nordoff-Robbins Center for Music Therapy, Robin Shaw explains to an interviewer that music therapy helped her son learn how to do everything from walk to eat.

Shaw said her son Joshua’s music therapist put it best when he told her that “Joshua didn’t want anyone in his world and that he had a beautiful world and he was going to teach Josh how to share it.”

Debating the Therapeutic Power of Music

In a WNYC interview, Clive Robbins, a pioneer of music therapy and co-founder of the Nordoff-Robbins Center at New York University, debates the healing capabilities of music therapy with Dr. Steven P. Novella, director of general neurology at Yale University School of Medicine.

Robbins believes music can heal, particularly if the individual is “directly involved in making the music.” Dr. Novella, who agrees that there are some benefits to music, adds, “I draw the line … in suggesting that music is somehow doing something special or specific to the brain beyond just engaging in an activity.”

“Why Music Matters for Alzheimer’s Patients”

In May 2008, scientists at UCLA’s Tennenbaum Center for the Biology of Creativity began a study exploring how children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and typically developing children responded to emotion in music and in facial expression. Istvan Molnar-Szakacs, the study’s lead researcher said that by activating the brain areas that process emotion via emotive music, he hopes to enhance children’s capacity to recognize emotion through other mediums, for example facial expression.

The idea that songs can evoke memories of people, places and moments from our pasts is hardly news, but Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, has figured out why.

In March, a UC Davis study showed that memory, music and emotions all activate the same region of the brain, which may have implications for Alzheimer’s patients.

Music Therapy

For more information regarding music therapy and to answer frequently asked questions visit the American Music Therapy Association’s Web site.

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