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ERN 2023: Music as instrument for connection and a healthier brain

25 September 2023
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By: Jelle Posthuma

Music not only makes people happy or melancholic, it potentially also acts as a ‘cognitive vaccine’ and enhances recovery after surgery. During the Science Show of the European Researchers' Night (ERN), on September 29, researchers Marie-José van Tol and Krista de Wit will share their insights on these topics.

A grumpy man who opens up after a music session at his hospital bedside and shares his life story with the nurses. Or a patient who has had difficulty sleeping for weeks, but after the visit of three musicians suddenly dreams again about a kingfisher in his garden. According to dr. Krista de Wit, violinist and senior researcher at the Hanze University of Applied Sciences, these are striking examples of the positive influence of live music in healthcare, her area of expertise.

De Wit has a background as a music pedagogue. For her PhD research, she conducted research on live music in hospitals and elderly care. She visited patients with a team of professional musicians in the UMCG and other hospitals. De Wit completed her PhD research in 2020. Besides, she supervised students from the Prince Claus Conservatory of Music in Groningen, who learned to make live music on the surgery departments in different hospitals.

For the Science Show, De Wit talks about her research and education in the field of person-centered music-making in healthcare. Her research shows that live music positively influences patients' recovery. Moreover, the positive influence not only applies to the patients: musicians and nurses also benefit. 'With music we try to connect, both between patients and between patients and nurses,' De Wit explains. 'There is a lot of stress and anxiety involved in hospitalization. We know from research that good communication between patients and nurses is crucial for a successful recovery.'

Bach and Bon Jovi

When performing, cooperation between nurses and musicians is very important, De Wit knows. Success largely depends on the conditions in the hospital. Therefore, a 'backstage' is created, where nurses and musicians can interact freely. 'We want to prevent musicians from acting too cautiously, because they might feel uncomfortable in the hectic practice of a hospital. That's why our conservatory students train together with nursing students now.'

The musicians do not play 'just any piece', De Wit continues. The music sessions are all about making person-centered music. 'Some patients only want to listen, while others actively participate. The patient then becomes a conductor, so to speak, sometimes together with the nurse. In the hospital, patients often have little autonomy. By participating in the music, they regain their autonomy a bit.' Although the musicians mainly improvise, the participant's musical wishes are central, says the Hanze researcher. 'We always play musical pieces without sheet music, but we also make new arrangements based on requests. From Bach and Bon Jovi to The Beatles.’

'Cognitive vaccine'

The positive effects of music are not limited to the hospital. During the Science Show, dr. Marie-José van Tol, professor of Cognitive Neuropsychiatry at the UMCG, highlights the effects of music on the brain. Van Tol researches the role of the brain and cognition in the emergence and persistence of mental disorders. 'During the Science Show, we will experience with the audience how music affects our mood. A musician will play sober and joyful music, and we will look at the connecting power of a music by singing together. Music can trigger positive emotions and help with emotion regulation. For example, people with depression often find it difficult to show their emotions, and music can help with that.'

Music can also work as a 'cognitive vaccine', according to Van Tol. Playing an instrument is a complex skill, the professor explains. 'Research shows that people who learned to play an instrument have a slightly better ability to focus. The same is true for people who learned a second language. The more complex skills, the better. We recently conducted research on the ability to focus among over-65s with memory problems. As it turns out, there is evidence that learning to play an instrument actually provides a small cognitive benefit.'

Want to know more about (live) music at the hospital, or music as a 'cognitive vaccine'? Join the Science Show during the European Researchers' Night on Friday, September 29, in the Rabozaal of the Forum in Groningen. The program ''Music - a puzzle piece of well-being'' will be from 20.45 to 21.15. The European Researchers' Night is organized by the four Schools for Science & Society.

Last modified:29 September 2023 2.23 p.m.
View this page in: Nederlands

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