An Investigation into the Possible Impact of Early-Life Stress on Music as a Stress-Reduction Tool

May 5, 2020   /  

Student: Sarah Vandenbergen
Major: Cognitive Behavioral Neuroscience
Minor: Music
Advisor: Dr. John Neuhoff, Dr. Grit Herzmann

Music is common stress-reduction tool, though the literature to support this is often inconsistent. A possible confounding variable is stress system dysregulation caused by early-life stress. This study presented participants with stressful images, followed by music or silence to measure how early stress effects the stress response. Measures of early life stress included ACE score (adversity) and maternal education (socioeconomic status). Music facilitated more recovery than silence. ACE score was a covariate correlated with stress reactivity, while maternal education was not a covariate and only associated with the amount of change in stress. Neither was related to overall post-recovery stress. This demonstrates that any effects of stress system dysregulation are negated by the effect of music on recovery. Early-life adversity may confound studies of relaxing music because it is related to reactivity. As adversity does not affect recovery, it should not affect the efficacy of music as a stress-reduction tool.

*This presentation is only available to College of Wooster students, faculty, and staff.*

View on Microsoft Stream

Sarah will be online to field comments on May 8:
Noon-2pm EDT (PST 9am-11am, Africa/Europe: early evening)

25 thoughts on “An Investigation into the Possible Impact of Early-Life Stress on Music as a Stress-Reduction Tool”

  1. Do you think that if you used different types of music (because it appears that you only offered one choice), the results would be different or that there would be more stress reduction if the type of music was their favorite type of music?

    Also, based on the barplot you provided, it does seem like both groups (if they got music during recovery or not) had a big decrease in stress after the recovery period. How did you or did you determine if this difference in stress (before versus after) the recovery period was different for both groups?

    1. Hi! Thanks so much for asking about the type of music – it’s actually a huge area of research that I got to read up on when designing this project! Generally, one likely reason that music research is highly variable in the conclusions it comes to is because music itself is highly variable. Many studies show that music can be excitatory, mood-boosting, ominous, etc, due to tonality, instrumentation, tempo, etc. It is definitely possible that choosing music with different qualities would in fact lead to a difference in conclusions. This piece that was used was one of a few that was shown to be highly relaxing in music research, and I chose to use one standard piece to be able to control this stimuli across all conditions. There is a lot of literature that also shows preferring or being familiar with the music may have an increased benefit, though this is again inconsistent. This is potentially because familiar music activates brain regions involved in emotion processing, such as the amygdala, which are also involved in the stress response. I decided that asking participants to choose music that they find relaxing introduced too much variability into an online study when there are many environmental conditions already can’t be controlled, and instead asked them to rate whether they liked the music, were familiar with the music, whether they found it relaxing/exciting, and whether they found it positive/negative. None of these measures were related to any of the significant early-life stress models in the study, so they did not confound the results, but I did see that those who liked the music and found it more positive and relaxing had lower levels of stress after music presentation. So in short, yes I do think whether participants liked or knew the music influenced how they benefitted from music, and it is very likely that a similar design with a different type of music could have a very different outcome.

      As for the barplot, the ANCOVA model demonstrated that there were significantly different levels of stress in both conditions before and after the recovery period. The differences in stress before recovery between conditions was also significant, which suggested that the larger reduction in stress in the music condition may still be meaningful, though that cannot be concluded from this data alone because of the anomaly seen in the music condition before recovery.

      Thank you so much for your thoughtful questions!

  2. Sarah, the topic you chose for your I.S. is fascinating. I admire how you approached it tenaciously and energetically. I’m so glad you had the opportunity to fold two disciplines together and come up with interesting results! I was wondering how you selected the piece of music that you played for the study participants. What qualities where you looking for in the piece when you were choosing it? Or did you have the piece in mind from the start of designing your project?
    And congratulations on all your amazing achievements! I’m thrilled for you.

    1. Hi Cara! I really appreciate the time you took to listen to this research! I knew from the literature, as well as past research projects in laboratory classes that allowing each participant to select music that they find personally relaxing can be very complicated. So I knew I needed to find one piece that could be relaxing for everyone. This led me to a few pieces of music that were established in previous research as being consistently relaxing for participants. The piece I used, Gymnopedie, was one, but also I found a few others: ‘Miserere’ by Allegri and MusiCure, which is specifically composed to be relaxing in medical settings. Out of those three, I was unable to get access to MusiCure and I felt that ‘Miserere’ was too ominous-feeling for the purpose of this study. Thanks so much for taking the time. Hope you’re doing well, and can’t wait to see how you continue to grow during your time at Wooster!

  3. Great job Sarah! This is a super interesting topic. Do you plan on continuing this research in the future? If so, what would you focus on?

    1. Hi Emily! Though I would love to see how the results may be different in an in-person lab setting where more control and standardization could be used, I don’t necessarily plan on continuing this research. More than anything, it was an opportunity for me to dive deeper into the literature in areas that interested in a way I wasn’t interested in classes. I ended up choosing this topic mostly because I really cared about both music psych and child development and wanted to find a way to learn more about both. Thanks for your question, and congratulations on your IS as well!

  4. Great job Sarah! This research is definitely something close to my heart, especially as I have family members that struggle with mental health issues, and I feel that music and music therapy are tools that should be utilized to help those struggling.

    A few questions: Do you think this research could be used as a part of music therapy programs? I know this is not a part of your research, but do you think that there is a difference between playing an instrument or just listening to music in terms of stress recovery?

    I really enjoy your project and I know that you’re gonna do great things with your degree! I hope you come back to Wooster sometime soon!

    1. Hi Sydney, it’s great to hear from you! Though I did not explore any therapeutic methods in this project beyond simply listening to music, I think this fits well into an understanding of music therapy. If these results hold up when using standardized measures, I think it might help explain at least one reason why music therapy is so beneficial. The ability of individuals to experience the benefits of music across their stress backgrounds demonstrates the power of therapeutic music. So though I do not discuss specifically how this can be applied in music therapy, I think it serves to support the discipline.
      As for comparing playing an instrument vs listening, I have not seen any of that research, though it’s very possible it’s out there. We know musicians demonstrate differences in some cognitive and sensory abilities and engages many different neural processes, so I think it is highly likely there may be a benefit, but I cannot state that definitively based on my research.
      Thank you for your kind wishes, and I look forward to seeing what you do as well! And I’ll definitely do my best to get back and visit!

  5. Hi, Sarah (from a COW alum mom) Such interesting research. I am a retired special ed teacher from the Cleveland Heights-University Heights school district, where many of the students came from stressful environments, and, as you can imagine, many of them had behavior issues in school. Your research makes me wonder how effective it would be in calming students by allowing them to listen to favorite music. I did not listen to your research presentation, and I am wondering if you can share with me a little bit about the demographics of the people in your study. How would you see your research being applied in the classroom? I just remembered that I would play music to calm myself in the background in my classroom! Congratulations on a well done research project!

    1. Hello! Though I did read a fair bit of music therapy literature for this project, I didn’t get a chance to apply this to behavioral conditions or specific diagnoses. However, I’ve definitely seen how stressful early-childhood environments can lead to behavioral changes, and think this is an interesting and logical next step. It does appear that music therapy can be applied in such contexts with success, when tailored to the specific needs of the individuals. I can’t speak for this field as a whole, but would hope that the use of even some music in a classroom could be beneficial for students, though there would be even more benefit to the development of a specific treatment plan. Thanks so much for this question – it’s so important and I wish I could have explored it further in my research!

  6. I’m so happy for you Sarah! I’m glad that you were able to combine to areas that you were interested in. I’m glad I got to hear about your I.S. which I knew a little about but now I know a lot more. You worked really hard this year and I’m proud of you!

  7. Congratulations Sarah! I really like that your project is combining two of your interests and I think your results are very interesting. How do you think your results would compare if a similar study was done with children (as you said was on of your reasons for doing this study)? Do you think factors present among young children such as reduced attention span and difficulty in communicating feelings would affect the results? Good luck with your future plans!

    1. Hi Anna, it’s great to hear from you! The age both that someone experiences stress but also the age that they’re being observed can definitely influence what changes in their stress-regulation are observed. I think a similar study that looks at children would likely support the same overall conclusions, that music is generally effective across all populations. I haven’t seen any studies on this specifically, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were slight differences in the size or the direction of the effect. Thanks so much for your questions, and I’ve loved getting to know you over the past three years!

  8. Hi Sarah, thanks for sharing your research and creating such a clear presentation. I know others have already asked about the choice of music, but I wanted to follow up on the idea that different people find different sorts of music pleasant, and perhaps relaxing. Do you believe it is more important for people to listen to music that they personally find soothing or that has a particular musical rhythm/signature that has been correlated with decreases in average heart rate (for instance)?

    1. Hi Professor Stavnezer! I think this is a very interesting question, and one that may have more than one answer. I think scientifically, there is evidence that supports how particular music, such as a moderate tempo that reflects an average heart rate of 70-80 beats per minute, very often has the potential to be relaxing. However, I don’t think that should make it a gold standard for what relaxing music should be. If someone has music that they find relaxing but doesn’t fit these criteria, they are still enjoying and benefitting from it. I think if someone is looking for relaxing music, they could be pointed towards that. But the thing about music is that it’s incredibly versatile and people can use the music that works for them, which I think is one reason it can be so effective in so many different settings. So if someone wants to use music, I would encourage them to use what works best for them, regardless of whether it is in line with criteria associated with typically relaxing music. Thank you so much for being such an amazing professor these past four years! I’ve always valued your classes and how they taught me to think deeply and critically. You’ve been great, and I thought you should know that I hung up guidelines for the CREATE method on my carrel when writing my literature review!

  9. Hey! Awesome job on both your I.S. and your presentation. Your subject is fascinating and the hard work you put into it is clearly evident. I was wondering if the literature points to music in a specific genre (classical, for example) having more potential to reduce stress than others?

    1. Hi Izzy! That’s a great question! In research that compares music from different genres, it is most commonly found that classical or otherwise instrumental music is the genre that leads to the greatest relaxation benefits. Though music that one enjoys and is familiar with also can have relaxing potential. Though most studies find this genre to be the most relaxing, it’s definitely not the only thing that’s relaxing, so really it’s up to the individual to use whatever works best for them. Thank you so much, and congrats on your IS as well!

  10. Hi Sarah,
    It’s great to visit the Symposium today to learn more about what you have been working on this year in IS. This is a really interesting project. Congratulations on a job very well done, and thank you for presenting it here today. 🙂

  11. Excellent presentation, Sarah! It’s so great how you were able to combine your two passions for such an important application. Mental health can sometimes be overlooked in wider contexts of stress, so I’m happy to see your results showed that music can be an effective recovery tool. My sister works as an intervention specialist, so I’m wondering if you think there would be a different response in an ED population. I ask because I know there can be distinct differences in the way their brains work and react to stress, and I’m wondering if this could be an effective tool for my sister to use, too. Congratulations, and great job!

    1. Thank you so much Alexis! I would have loved to look at specific behavior conditions and therapeutic methods, as I think this is the clear logical next step with this research, but unfortunately it was beyond the scope of what I was able to read and investigate for IS. High levels of early life stress can predict a variety of behavior conditions, such as ADHD or oppositional defiance disorder. I do know that music therapists do have specific methods for working with these populations, so there likely are ways to apply these in a classroom and I would love to learn more about it on my own time as well. What I think I can give you as a takeaway from this project is that those populations would likely experience the same benefits of music compared to the general population, which could make it a highly effective tool if used in a way that worked for those kids. Thanks so much for your question, and congratulations on your IS as well!

  12. Awesome work, Sarah! Thank you so much for this. I know there was a question earlier about variations in findings according to different music types but did you come across anything about differences in demographics and effectiveness of different genres? Are there different music genres that may be more effective on certain individuals based on their race, ethnicity, gender/sexuality, etc.?

    Congratulations and I wish you the best!

Comments are closed.