A Healthy Dose of Sound
Research at the University of Saskatchewan has documented the harmful effects of occupational and industrial noise. Now, researchers in several colleges are exploring the positive side of sound.
By Beverly Fast
Our global village is becoming a noisy place. Planes, trains and automobiles are pushing traffic noise to new levels. Machines, gadgets and canned music piped into restaurants, elevators and just about every other public space—even while you are on the telephone waiting for the “next available representative”—add to the decibel level. And let’s not forget people chatter, which is attaining new volume thanks to mobile phones. Modern life has become cacophonous, and we have only ourselves to blame.
“Noise is destroying our public spaces and eroding our quality of life,” said University of Saskatchewan President Ilene Busch-Vishniac, who co-authored a landmark 2005 study on noise control in hospitals. “You can’t see or smell noise pollution, but it’s every bit as important as air and water pollution. And it is not selective about who it impacts.”
Exposure to noise can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, disturb your sleep, and affect your immune system and even your biochemistry. University of Saskatchewan researchers have been studying occupational noise and noise induced hearing loss (NIHL) for a number of years. There is no doubt that sound can harm, but, as researchers are discovering, sound can also heal.
Using Music to Improve Health Outcomes
Professor Donna Goodridge in the College of Nursing is exploring the benefits of singing for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), a progressive lung disease characterized by coughing, fatigue and shortness of breath.
“The standard therapy for people with COPD is pulmonary rehabilitation, which is offered at the Saskatoon Field House. I had seen research studies from Brazil and the United Kingdom where singing was used as an adjunct therapy, and I wanted to explore whether singing could also help,” Goodridge said.
Her team designed a small pilot study using 12 volunteers from the pulmonary rehabilitation program. “Initially, our aim was to assess the feasibility of this kind of therapy, to see if there was a benefit to be gained. We saw good results in terms of patient well-being and quality of life, so we designed a follow-up study to assess some of the physiological parameters.”
The second phase, conducted with nine volunteers between February and April 2012, included cardiopulmonary exercise testing. “With an eightweek test we didn’t see huge physiological changes, but we did see signals that suggest singing could offer potential benefits in terms of lung function,” Goodridge explained. “The most important thing we saw was the perception of less shortness of breath.”
That finding alone is enough to encourage Goodridge to consider future research in the area. “We still have a lot of questions,” she says. “For example, most of our volunteers already had advanced COPD; what if we started singing therapy earlier, would it affect how the illness progresses?”
While Goodridge explores the benefits of singing on people with COPD, one of the members of her research team is asking different questions. How does music enhance the actions of everyday life? How do spontaneous everyday uses of music extend understanding about coping? These questions drive Professor Jennifer Nicol’s research into the social and psychological effects of listening to music. A professor of educational psychology and special education in the College of Education, as well as an accredited music therapist, Nicol is hoping to use music to improve quality of life for the elderly and those suffering from chronic health conditions.
Using Music to Enhance Brain Development
Nicole Wilton Elliott (BA’91) has taught in the University of Saskatchewan’s Community Music Education Program (CMEP) for 14 years and has been program manager for eight years. She is currently pursuing a Master’s Degree in Music in Education with an emphasis on early childhood. In one sense, her research is validating what years of experience at the CMEP have shown—music is a vital part of early childhood development.
“Over the last five years or so, a lot of research has been looking at what happens in the human brain when people listen to or participate in music, and especially what happens in the developing brains of young children,” Wilton Elliott said. “We know children instinctively respond to music; it’s universal. We also know that if music is not fostered in the early years, the windows in the brain that are receptive to music start to close.”
The data suggests that zero to three is the best age to introduce music; this is when the brain is most receptive. The next best window is ages three to six, followed by ages six to nine. “It’s not that an older child or adult cannot learn music, it’s just that it will be harder because the brain is not as receptive,” Wilton Elliott says.
How does music benefit brain development in children? A growing body of research suggests that introducing music in early childhood leads to better language skills, improved concentration, increased confidence, enhanced social skills, better performance in school and higher IQ later in life. It is not the music itself that is causing these things, it is the impact of listening to and learning music on the developing brain.
“Music is one of the only subjects that uses both sides of the brain,” Wilton Elliott explained. “Research suggests that introducing music early helps increase and improve connections in the brain—not the number of connections, but the wiring.”
Wilton Elliott is a strong proponent of music in early childhood. She has one important piece of advice for parents wanting to introduce their children to music: keep it simple. “A cappella lullabies, sing-song melodies and easy rhythms are easy for children to learn. If there’s a piece of music that your child repeats, repeats, repeats, then you’ve got something. Be really encouraging of that, because that’s success for them.”
The growing compendium of research into sound—the good and the bad—at the University of Saskatchewan is cause for excitement. “We’re making great progress in understanding how sound impacts human development, from birth to palliative care,” Busch-Vishniac said. “Now, we just need to find ways to provide quiet in public spaces.”