Research project looks at music as the medicine of the future

At the Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg, a pioneering project is examining how we biologically react to music. The objective is to be able to use music for medicinal purposes – and in the bargain, researchers have studied why good music induces goose bumps.

“Once we find the answers to our questions we will be only a short step away from being able to use the knowledge in medical context, where music can be a complement to medication.

So reports Björn Vickhoff, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy’s Centre of Brain Repair who is studying the brain’s recovery from illness and injury. As a part of the research project “The Body’s Musical Score,” Björn Vickhoff and his colleagues, are making a survey using advanced technology to identify and study the body’s biological responses to various forms of music: among the questions being researched is what happens in the body when we hear music, and what is it in the music which gives the strongest effects.

In the study, 20 people of various ages and nationalities have taken their place in the laboratory in order to listen alternating to calm music (“Ro” with the pianist Rickard Åström), blues music (“Weight of Water” by the American band Low), enthusiastic music (“Born to Run” with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band), and horror film music (such as the soundtracks from Jaws, Psycho and Halloween).

By drastically changing the character of the music, from blues to enthusiastic, and from fright to calm, the researchers were able to measure the subjects’ neurophysiological responses in the form of pulse and pulse wave velocity, respiratory rate, fingertip temperature, skin conductance, as well as oxytocin and adrenaline levels.

The scientific conclusions of the study have been presented at the Science Festival in Gothenburg, but already the preliminary results are making Björn Vickhoff very enthusiastic:

“We are beginning to show that the heart, precisely as it says in every love song, really plays an important role in emotions.”

“The study clearly shows that music affects the heart. Since there is reciprocal communication between the brain and the heart, this is very interesting. The ability to affect the heart and the circulation with music may be of significant importance considering that much of the complications from surgery are caused by circulatory disturbances.”

The Gothenburg study establishes that musical variables, such as beat and tempo, cause a corresponding biological response in terms of physiological, neurological, and cardiovascular reactions.

“It’s as if the body has its own music score, where each event in the music has its counterpart in the body’s physical sequence of events,” comments Björn Vickhoff.

The goal of the researchers is to use music in clinical practice, such as a sedative prior to surgery, for pain relief, in order to stimulate the brain’s ability to heal itself (plasticity), to motivate and stimulate rehabilitation such as after a stroke, or to support the motion of Parkinson’s disease patients.

By chance, the Gothenburg researchers got a random opportunity in a laboratory setting to document a case of goose bumps (cutis anserina), or “piloerection” which is the medical name.

“One of our volunteers got goose bumps when actually we really wanted to measure something else. This person was listening to a live song from, and performed by, Rickard Åstöm, and got goose bumps just where the expected harmony of the music was broken by a change in tonality. As the subject was connected to our computers, we could identify the physiological events and do a case study on something that is otherwise very difficult to produce in the laboratory,” reports Björn Vickhoff.

Goose bumps has been evolutionarily explained as a way to enlarge the body at risk and/or as a mating behaviour. It is known that when experiencing music, the same parts of the brain are activated as where the reward system for food, and sex, exists. Additionally, goose bumps can be linked to the secretion of dopamine.

Piloerection is very interesting to study because it is the most obvious psycho-physiological response to music. The Gothenburg researchers’ study shows that with an outbreak of goose bumps, the heart beats faster, breathing slows down, fingers get colder, and hand perspiration increases.

The article “Musical Piloerection” was published in the journal: Music and Medicine.

Link to article:

The study “The Body’s Musical Score” will be published later this year.

For further information please contact:
Björn Vickhoff, researcher at the Centre for Brain Repair, Sahlgrenska Academy at the University of Gothenburg.
46 (0) 31/702-5274

Did you know ...

... not everyone gets goose bumps from music – only about half of us have experienced it, according to studies

... women and musicians are more susceptible to getting goose bumps

... the musical goose bumps capacity is linked to type of personality: more adventurous people, get goose bumps more seldom

... an American study shows that we more often get goose bumps from sad music than from happy music

Press contact
Krister Svahn

Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg
46766-18 38 69
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The Sahlgrenska Academy is the faculty of health sciences at the University of Gothenburg. Education and research are conducted within the fields of pharmacy, medicine, odontology and health care sciences. About 4,000 undergraduate students and 1,200 postgraduate students are enrolled at Sahlgrenska Academy. Around 1,400 people work at the Sahlgrenska Academy. 850 of them are researchers and/or teachers. 2009 Sahlgrenska Academy had a turnover of 2,100 million SEK.


About Us

The Sahlgrenska Academy is the faculty of health sciences at the University of Gothenburg. Education and research are conducted within the fields of pharmacy, medicine, odontology and health care sciences. 6,000 students are enrolled at Sahlgrenska Academy and around 1,000 researchers and teachers work at the faculty.




Quick facts

New resarch project investigates how music can be used for medicinal purpose
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First case study on goose bumps.
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The study clearly shows that music affects the heart.
Björn Vickhoff, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy