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Music therapy: Key features of healing music identified

Researchers have identified three potentially unique acoustic features of healing music that are consistent across various genres. 

This discovery could revolutionize how music therapy is personalized and how its effectiveness is evaluated.

Focus of the study

Music therapy has long been recognized for its therapeutic effects on mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and PTSD. However, there’s been no consensus on what exactly constitutes healing music. 

To address this, the researchers sought to determine if healing music shares specific acoustic features, regardless of genre, and how these differ from regular music.

How the research was conducted

Drawing from the expertise of 35 music therapists, a library of 165 diverse pieces of healing music was compiled. 

These pieces, believed to aid emotional and mental health issues, were compared with a wide range of other music types, including 330 classical pieces, 50 traditional 5-element Chinese music pieces, 100 Jazz recordings, and 300 tracks from the Chinese affective music system.

The team analyzed the music using the Mirtoolbox and identified 370 acoustic features, grouped into five dimensions: energy, volume, loudness, rhythm, timbre, pitch, and key. Remarkably, over 25 percent of these features were genre-specific, but the rest were common across all genres.

Key insights 

A comparison of these common features with healing classical and traditional Chinese music showed significant differences, leading to the identification of three distinct acoustic features of healing music. 

These are the standard deviation of roughness, mean of the third coefficient of the mel-frequency cepstral coefficients (MFCC3), and period entropy of MFCC3. These features, which relate to the perceived irregularity of sound, energy distribution in frequency ranges, and randomness in frequency patterns over time, were found to predict subjective emotional responses in listeners.

Transcending boundaries 

This discovery suggests that music’s healing properties may indeed transcend cultural and genre boundaries. The researchers note that roughness in music can evoke various moods and emotional responses, such as tension or relaxation, depending on its level and context.

The findings were further validated by comparing the acoustic features of jazz pieces in the healing collection with regular jazz music. This supports previous research suggesting music’s universal appeal and impact, regardless of culture or genre.

Study implications 

While acknowledging limitations due to a small expert pool and potential cultural biases, the researchers propose that these three acoustic features could be used to tailor therapeutic playlists for patients using AI algorithms. 

This approach could analyze physiological and psychological responses in real time, thereby enhancing the effectiveness of music therapy in various contexts, including stress reduction, mental health, and chronic pain management.

The research is published in the journal General Psychiatry.

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