Music as medicine: lining up for ice water at Lowlands

Erasmus researchers investigate the healing effects of music
Researchers Music as Medicine

Can you hold your hand in ice cold water longer when you hear rock music and shorter when you hear classical music? Or is it the other way around for you, or do you respond better to urban, dance or pop? Julian Schaap and Michaël Berghman (Arts and Culture, ESHCC), Femke Vandenberg and Julia Peters (former ESHCC researchers), and Emy van der Valk Bouman and Antonia Becker (Erasmus MC) collected data at Lowlands to investigate whether hearing a specific music genre does indeed affect pain perception.

The researchers were blown away by the amount of people who wanted to participate in the experiments.

The study

Interested participants had to prove they were sober, even a paracetamol could affect the results. Of the 626 interested Lowlanders, 548 passed the test, including Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf.

Participant holding her hand in ice water

Participants completed questionnaires in which they could note their favourite music. When analysing this data, the study looks at whether fondness for a particular genre of music correlates with tolerating pain. From a sociological perspective, it is interesting to see if it matters which musical genres you are familiar with and what you grew up with, to see if your musical background helps in coping with pain. The study also looks at gender differences.

“We think, based on current studies, that someone's preferred music works best, but there are quite a lot of situations in the hospital where you can't ask about that, such as in intensive care,” says Emy. “It would then be really nice if we could tell which music works best based on personal background.”

In addition to filling in questionnaires, interested Lowlanders were asked to hold their hand in a tub of ice water for as long as possible while listening to music. Which genre of music they got to hear was determined beforehand with the roll of a dice. The genres studied were classical, rock, urban, dance and pop. The participants were then timed to see how long they lasted, with the most courageous keeping their hands in the ice water for up to three minutes. Afterwards, everyone was given a personalised doctor's prescription for musical pain relief.

Research group Music as Medicine

Collaboration between ESHCC and Erasmus MC

The driving force behind this research is the collaboration between two different research fields, namely cultural sociology and medicine.

"Research used to be very compartmentalised thinking. Sociological, medical, psychological - it was all separate," Emy explains. "But it can be very stimulating if you look at something from different angles."

"Somehow it is a search for a universal medicine, like paracetamol, on the other hand there is also recognition of the differences between people," Julian says. "A middle way goes through the social background someone has. Then we get a better idea of what works in a particular group and what doesn't."

The study is a collaboration between the research groups Music as Medicine at Erasmus MC and ESHCC’s Popular Music Studies. "We are learning a lot from each other," explains Julian. "I feel that in this collaboration a very fresh, optimistic wind is blowing. That's awesome."

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How can live music create a connection between people? This is what Femke Vandenberg studied in her PhD thesis by attending concerts and interviewing visitors.

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