Interview with Professor Lee Bartel

Music Medicine: A New Frontier in Healthcare and Medical Research

Interview with Professor Lee Bartel

You have been on shows such as TVO’s “The Agenda” and along with the upcoming event the North York Central Library, you also have a Ted Talk scheduled for next year.  Why have you chosen to engage with the public about music medicine? What are the main messages you hope to get across? 

I have found a great deal of interest in the public about the potential for music to impact health. I think this is because people inherently sense that music enlivens them, calms them, has power to emotionally move them, or to energize a walk. What people do not know but are eager to learn about is the scientific explanation for the effect music has – and then to discover that there is even more at work in the body and mind. So I am pleased to be able to help people understand to potential of music in relation to health.

First I try to clarify for people that music as music is a cultural phenomenon and most of its effect on us is the result of learning – of enculturation – and that is good and useful and has much potential in music therapy. But music is also vibration – it is pulsing sound waves that act on the cells of the body and the neurons in the brain. If this dimension of sound and music is controlled, it can become a way to treat medical conditions that are related to brain dysrhythmias.  I then like to illustrate these effects with stories.

Part of title of your talk is called “A New Frontier”. What is the state of music medicine today and where would you like to see it in the next 10 years?

What I am talking about is a new frontier for clinical treatments. Music therapy – the use of music as a means to accomplish goals like reducing anxiety, fostering communication, motivating movement, or stimulating reminiscence through a therapist-client relationship – has been practiced for many years. But, for example, the use of specific sound frequencies as a brain stimulant to accomplish goals pursued by electro-stimulation like deep brain stimulation or repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) is definitely a new frontier. I see music medicine as dosable – prescribable sound based on scientific research that has focused on mechanism and not just evidenced based research. This is essentially what we found very effective in a study we have completed and in another RCT we are just now wrapping [up].

What are some of the principal ideas in your talk at the North York Central Library?

At the North York talk I will talk about multiple levels (sort of a taxonomy) at which music and sound impact the person – from the most obvious – emotional response to learned associations to responses to associations we have learned during earliest infancy  – to how music uses particular brain channels so we can access language after a stroke and use it as a means to rehabilitation – to how sound vibration drives brain wave activity and how this can re-regulate brain dysrhythmias and brain connectivity – to how sound stimulates and affects us at the cellular- epigenetic level.

Are there uses for music medicine as a self-treatment at home or at work?  Like for those who have difficulty falling asleep, for example? If so, what are they?

Yes very definitely. We did a study at Mount Sinai where we used music designed to entrain brain activity at deep sleep – delta level. It resulted in strongly improved sleep. We are using a home device in our pain studies and in a depression study. This extends by implication from our recent research even to possible effects on Alzheimer’s Disease and dementia. But most basic is to address one of the most pernicious problems of our 21st century society – stress. Take a 30- minute dose of your favourite music – and we are quite certain stress hormones like cortisol will be reduced, the immune system will be boosted, and pain levels will decrease. And most of us already know music calms and destresses us – that is no small feat for a medicine – and its easy, low cost, non-invasive, with few side-effects.