Universiteit Leiden

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‘Music has so many positive effects’

This year, Leiden University celebrates its 444th birthday – and when you’re giving a party, you need great music! Neuropsychologist Rebecca Schaefer agrees. She has been fascinated by music since she was a child, and now she studies how music can make us happy, give us energy or calm us down.

‘Music is one of the most powerful ways to trigger emotions,’ says Schaefer. We sing songs at Christmas, at birthdays and at funerals, not to mention singing the national anthem at sports matches. Practically all cultures use music in this way, but we still don’t know exactly how it affects the brain.

You don’t have to sing or make music yourself to trigger those emotions, Schaefer explains: listening to music activates a lot of feelings on its own. ‘It’s a great way to get yourself in the mood and energised for a night out. Music can stimulate almost every part of the brain, because it touches on so many different things: it makes us move, it affects our memory, and so on. And 95% of healthy people regularly “consume” music, so it’s odd that we still know so little about what exactly is going in the brain at that moment.’

‘We’ve found out a few basic things through psychology. When people hear music they like, it makes them happy; a familiar piece of music makes you active; and it can be beneficial to play certain music when you’re dealing with something like heartbreak. In that situation, music creates a safe environment for you to process negative emotions, which is positive in itself.’

Because music has so many positive effects, it might be a good idea to use it in a field such as healthcare. To do that, you’d really need to know exactly what effect it has on a person. Schaefer: ‘In my own research we got our test subjects to train a certain hand movement, with or without music. We had hoped that it would work better with music than without, but we didn’t find that. We did see that people enjoyed it more with music, and we saw changes in the part of the brain that connects hearing to movement. Knowledge in this area could ultimately be important, for example when people who have had a stroke are learning to move again.’

A 444 song?

Should there be a special song for this anniversary year at Leiden University? Schaefer: ‘Well, a song is always good for a party, especially when you want to strengthen group identity. And the University doesn’t yet have a song for that kind of event. I’d pick something slow and stately, maybe a waltz. With a few good tunes, and preferably ending on a high note. The lyrics could be about a higher purpose you can aim for, about a place or an outward characteristic of a building everyone knows, or about some well-known Leiden figures. For the performance, I’d go for alumni who have become entertainers – and of course a royal alumnus. Maybe they wouldn’t actually sing, but they could have a cameo in the clip.’

Calming effect

‘I think you have to be cautious about making big claims about what music can achieve in healthcare, but I do think we should learn how basic functions work, for instance what kind of music can help a patient relax before or after an operation. You could use calming music to have a certain effect on a person’s muscle tension and heart rate. But as I say, we don’t know enough about the underlying processes to be able to really implement those kinds of applications; we’ve only just begun. Mostly what we have at the moment are individual anecdotes about possible appropriate applications. For example, one person who has Parkinson’s disease uses certain music to be able to ‘march’ to the supermarket, and we know patients who use music to help with problems related to their mood.’

This articl also appeared in the January 2019 edition of Leidraad - the magazine for alumni  of Leiden University.

Photo above: The Netherlands Student Orchestra.

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