Music Colloquium: Music, low-level electrical stimulation, & autonomic function

The speaker is Beatrice Bretherton (University of Leeds).


Music is viewed as conferring health benefits, with the speed of music being one of the most influential parameters for altering activity in the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is a complex neural network responsible for regulating the human body. It has two main components: the sympathetic nervous system, modulating ‘fight or flight’ responses; and the parasympathetic nervous system, influencing ‘rest and digest’ activities. Increases and decreases in the speed of music significantly impacted sympathetic and parasympathetic activity. Also, a piece of music known for its relaxation-enhancing effects was rather adept at promoting shifts towards parasympathetic predominance.

Low-level electrical stimulation of specific parts of the ear which are innervated by the vagus nerve (main parasympathetic outflow), also facilitated shifts towards parasympathetic predominance. This lead to the anticipation that combining relaxation music with auricular stimulation would have a greater autonomic impact than music and auricular stimulation presented individually. Findings revealed a more complex picture: resting autonomic function influenced response patterns and psychological aspects also played a key role.

About the speaker

Beatrice Bretherton completed her BSc (Hons) in Psychology at the University of Stirling. She came to the School of Music, University of Leeds, to undertake her PhD, supervised by Professor Luke Windsor and Professor Jim Deuchars. Her PhD investigated the effects of musical tempo and non-invasive neuromodulation on autonomic control of the heart. Since completing her PhD, she has been working as a post-doctoral research assistant with Professor Jim Deuchars in the School of Biomedical Sciences, University of Leeds, on a project investigating the autonomic effects of low-level electrical stimulation of the ear in volunteers aged over 55 years.