February 2010: An Interview with Dr. Henry Claman

David Claman: When Victoria and I were discussing music and health recently I thought it would be interesting to get the perspective of a scientific researcher. (Full disclosure: Henry Claman happens to be my father.) Could you tell us a bit about your background and your interest in music and health?

Henry Claman: I am an MD internist at the University of Colorado School of Medicine and am mostly retired from the practice of Allergy and Immunology. I have a long-standing personal interest in music, having played since I was five. My interest in music and health is primarily scholarly; I am interested in how the brain functions in the areas of the arts, mainly fine arts and music. And being a physician, I am very interested in how music interacts with the brain in both health and disease.

DC: What kind of hard evidence is there for the relationship between music and health?

HC: As a matter of fact, there is a fair amount of information about music, health and disease. I would be very doubtful if someone were to try and convince me that music can heal a fracture better than silence. I have no doubt, however, from the published research—which is considerable—that music of different types, can change peoples’ moods, attitudes, and their physiology.

DC: I think most people would agree with you about the psychological effects of music, but for me the physiological connection is less clear. Could you talk about some of the research?

HC: Among the most interesting research is with what is called Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging, or FMRI. These are sophisticated investigations looking at the parts of the brain which are turned on, or interestingly enough, turned off in various situations, in this case listening to music. These are difficult studies to do in a controlled way, but there are a number of centers that have made enormous progress. The first thing one has to realize, is that the FMRI technology has shown us that music is processed in many more different parts of the brain than what we call the hearing center, the auditory cortex. In fact, music is processed throughout the brain. By playing different kinds of music one can see how the different areas of the brain are turned on or are turned off.

DC: Do you mean music that is being listened to or performed?

HC: Music is being listened to by a person who is inside an MRI machine, and their brain is being scanned. An FMRI measures changes in regional blood flow which reflects changes in brain function. What you find is that there is increased blood flow in the part of the brain that has to do with hearing. This is hardly a surprise. In addition, it depends on what type of music is played, whether it is something the listener really loves—that sends shivers down the spine—or music that they don’t like at all. If you are playing music the person really likes, the brain gets turned on in various areas, including what are called the pleasure and reward centers. When you take a broad view of this, this kind of music turns on the same parts of the brain that are turned on by food, sex, and recreational drugs of abuse.

DC: Ah-ha!

HC: Whereas if you play music that the subject does not like at all, whether it is because it is too dissonant or the wrong kind, you find that the brain is turned on in the region called the amygdala, which has to do with feelings of fear.

DC: Flight. I want to get out of here. I want this to stop.

HC: Absolutely. So this is one way of looking at how different kinds of music are perceived by people. Another way of looking at it is to measure hormones, usually in the blood, particularly stress hormones. Numerous studies have been done with people who are stressed; people who are in the Intensive Care Unit and are intubated. They cannot even talk.

DC: So you are not getting a subjective response. They are not telling you how they feel when they hear the music.

HC: Not at all. You are measuring things like blood pressure, heart rate, epinephrine in the blood and various chemicals. When you play what we would call relaxing music, their pulse goes down, their blood pressure goes down and these inflammatory chemical levels go down. One particularly interesting study found that in patients who were in the ICU and were in pain, and were listening to relaxing and calming music, their need for pain narcotics was diminished. So these are hard data.

DC: So music can be played in these situations, and people are going to feel better.

HC: Measurably better.

DC: Would you say that music is speeding the healing process?

HC: Let’s say music is facilitating healing.

DC: You mentioned earlier that there are centers where this research is being done. Can you name some of these places for people who would like to learn more?

HC: The two centers that I am aware of are the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, known familiarly as the MGH, and then there is the other MGH, which is the Montreal General Hospital in Montreal.

People could have a look at: http://www.brainmusic.org/ and http://www.brams.org/.