How music sessions unite therapist and patient in perfect harmony

Therapists and their patients sing from the same hymn sheet during music sessions, a new study suggests.

Researchers believe they have been able to demonstrate that the brains of the two synchronise during sessions, hailing a breakthrough that could improve future interactions.

Music therapy can be used to treat conditions such as depression, autism, and dementia.

Music therapy to help dementia
People living with dementia and their carers attend a music therapy session (Roger King/PA)

The first music therapy study to use hyperscanning has been published in the journal Frontiers In Psychology.

Hyperscanning records activity in two brains at the same time, allowing researchers to better understand how people interact.

During the session covered by the study, classical music was played as the patient discussed a serious illness in her family.

Both the patient and therapist wore EEG (electroencephalogram) caps containing sensors that capture electrical signals in the brain.

The session was also recorded in sync with the EEG using video cameras.

Music therapists work towards “moments of change”, where they make a meaningful connection with their patient.

In the study, the researchers noted that at one point the patient’s brain activity shifted suddenly from displaying deep negative feelings to a positive peak.

Shortly afterwards the therapist’s scan showed similar results, as she realised the session was working.

In subsequent interviews, both identified that as a moment when they felt the therapy was really working.

By analysing hyperscanning data alongside video footage and a transcript of the session, the researchers were able to demonstrate that brain synchronisation occurs.

They were also able show what a patient-therapist “moment of change” looks like inside the brain.

Lead author Jorg Fachner, professor of music, health and the brain at Anglia Ruskin University (ARU), said: “This study is a milestone in music therapy research.

“Music therapists report experiencing emotional changes and connections during therapy, and we’ve been able to confirm this using data from the brain.

Music therapy to help dementia
A music therapy session for people with dementia in Saffron Walden, Essex (Roger King/PA)

“Music, used therapeutically, can improve well-being, and treat conditions including anxiety, depression, autism, and dementia.

“Music therapists have had to rely on the patient’s response to judge whether this is working, but by using hyperscanning we can see exactly what is happening in the patient’s brain.”

He added that by highlighting exactly where the sessions have worked, it could be particularly useful when treating patients who struggle with verbal communication.

The researchers identified some limitations in their study, acknowledging that the findings need to be interpreted with “some caution”.

They said it was an explorative single case study, but that their observations can be addressed in future studies involving series of case studies in parallel to controlled experiments with healthy participants.

Both participants were listening to the same music, and thus any similarity in emotional processing could be in principle due to the common factor of music-evoked emotions in both participants, the researchers added.

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