The Impact of Music - Austrian Scientists Advance in the Mapping of the Music Code

bridges vol. 10, June 2006 / Feature Article
by Roland Haas & Vera Brandes

Music affects us in many ways. Whether conscious or unconscious, our brain and our body act and react to musical stimuli. For example, we may find we are suddenly humming a melody when we walk in the dark, or we may notice our foot tapping to a beat before we have even realized that there is music in the room. Since new research technologies have revealed how strongly the brain reacts to rhythms and melodies, music has become one of the prominent topics of European Neuroscience. An Austrian research team has now developed a method for measuring the influence of music outside of the laboratory, by monitoring the reactions of the autonomic nervous system.

From October 1st through 4th, an international conference on music impact research entitled "The Impact of Music - A Dialogue of the Sciences and the Arts about the Effects of Music in Art, Education, and Medicine" will take place in Baden, near Vienna, Austria.


{access view=guest}Access to the full article is free, but requires you to register. Registration is simple and quick - all we need is your name and a valid e-mail address. We appreciate your interest in bridges.{/access} {access view=!guest}The scientific research on the impact of music promises many benefits. The spectrum of its practical applications extends from accelerated learning in schools and training to improvements in health care and therapy. But the new and precise understanding of the power of music will also potentially impact the entertainment industry. Music lovers will no longer need to know the name of an artist or the title of a tune. The system, which is currently being developed in Austria, will be able to suggest the perfect soundscape based on the objective physical or emotional state of the listener.

Herbert von Karajan (1908-1998), one of the most influential conductors of the last century, was also a visionary with a profound interest in science and a fascination with technology. Although today it is common practice for famous classical orchestras and conductors, such as Sir Simon Rattle and Daniel Barenboim, to engage in educational projects, it was a pioneering act when Herbert von Karajan started his foundation in 1968:

"I want to give something back from the plentitude that music has given me. With this foundation, I want to try to deepen and to broaden the listening of music, the experience of music, the sensation of music."

The main focus of von Karajan's foundation was the collaboration of different sciences on an effort to investigate the psychological and physiological basis of music making and music listening. Karajan himself even volunteered as a subject for his foundation's Research Institute for Experimental Psychology of Music Effects at the University of Salzburg.

Karajan's legacy has remained vibrant until today. In an effort to revive the study of music's impact, the Salzburg universities got together in 2001 and initiated the concerted research project, Research Network Man and Music. Dr. Hans-Ullrich Balzer, a renowned chronobiologist and recognized expert in stress research, has been the head researcher since 2002. Chronobiology studies the mechanisms of time-based changes in the biological rhythms of bodily functions and their interaction.

Dr. Balzer explains: "A central problem in the determination of the psychophysiological effects of music is the time factor. The circadian rhythms of the body alternate between phases of activation and deactivation and determine the response to a particular piece of music to a large extent."

Balzer is also able to demonstrate how certain physiological parameters correspond to specific components contained in the structure of music. The following graph shows how music and the nervous system become synchronized when a person is exposed to music.
Balzer has invented a special device that allows him to monitor how the autonomic nervous system reacts to acoustic stimuli. Analysis of the data requires complex mathematical methods. Balzer developed these algorithms in 1986 in preparation for an experiment that he conducted with the astronauts of the Russian space program. Currently his team is working on the online version of their method, which will expand the range of the applications of the system significantly.

"One of the key factors in quantifying how people can profit from music is to study how they are able to deal with stress. In a 25-minute test, Dr. Balzer can categorize the exact stress response quality of a person. Since he introduced the test at the International Stress Conference in 1996, it has been performed on thousands of patients at the Stress Research Institute in Berlin, which Balzer headed before he came to Austria.

In 2004, the newly founded Paracelsus Private Medical University joined the effort and started the MusicMedicine Research Program. Vera Brandes, the director of the program, used Balzer's stress test in her studies. She was able to prove that stress response ability rises by 24 percent when patients with chronic sleep disorders listen to a music program that was produced in accordance with the results of Dr. Balzer's experiments. Brandes also studies the psychological implications associated with music, which is used as complementary therapy in a medical context. The research methods employed in her studies on music and emotions are based on psychological morphology. Her team is currently investigating how specially designed music programs can help patients with high blood pressure and heart problems.

In a pilot project conducted at the Salzburg State Hospital, Brandes also introduced a program developed for inpatients. Patients report less pain and depression when they listen to music and need lower dosages of pain and sleep medication. An interdisciplinary team of experts spent five years developing the program, which is now ready to be implemented by clinics worldwide. The University Hospital in Heidelberg, Germany's flagship medical center, will be the first institute to introduce the program outside of Austria.

To expand and consolidate the Austrian research efforts on music impact, Salzburg's Research Network Man and Music will extend its activities and continue its research as the newly founded Dynamic Life Arts Institute in Vienna.

In addition, in a close collaboration with music research proponents from Vienna, Styria, Carinthia, and Lower Austria, the International Music and Art Research Association (I.M.A.R.A.A.) was founded in 2004. I.M.A.R.A.A. and the State Government of Lower Austria have invited over 40 internationally recognized scientists from the fields of psychology, biology, education, and medicine, as well as acclaimed artists, to participate in an international conference entitled The Impact of Music - A Dialogue of the Sciences and the Arts about the Effects of Music in Art, Education, and Medicine, which will take place October 1-4, 2006, in the Congress Casino, Baden, the elegant suburb of Vienna and famous health resort often visited by Mozart's family.

The conference goal is to establish an interdisciplinary dialogue between the various scientific fields involved in research on the effects of music within their specific contexts. Besides giving an opportunity for presenting the results of recent research, the conference will center on the application of this understanding in the areas of education, health, and culture - and by doing so, continue the vision of Herbert von Karajan.

To learn more about the conference and to download the conference program, please visit .


About the authors:
Roland Haas is one of the co-founders of IMARAA and the association's president. He has been the spokesperson of the Research Net Man & Music.
Vera Brandes is a music and media effect researcher, music producer, and communication expert.