As the music and heart connection captivates human experience, Elaine Chew delves into the fusion of music computing and cardiology research. Breaking barriers, her work unravels music’s impact on the heart, unveiling therapeutic potentials. By decoding music’s expressivity and its physiological effects, Chew’s interdisciplinary exploration offers insights into music’s role in cardiovascular health, heralding a new era of music therapeutics.

Which wall does your research break?

Music and the heart have been romantically linked through the ages. More recently, physicians have been interested in music-induced changes to the heart and breathing for clinical use in modulating stress and blood pressure. However, understanding music’s effects on the heart is challenging due to the contextual, personal, and specific nature of music response, making findings inhomogeneous and hard to explain. Furthermore, music expressivity––the intentional manipulation of sounds to touch listeners––is ineffable and ephemeral, and lacks a systematic vocabulary for its description. As part of our long-term research on the why and how of music expressivity, we have created models to characterise and visualise performed and composed music structures. This research breaks down the wall to describing the ineffable nature of music by representing performers’ expressive shaping of musical prosody, and how listeners and performers ourselves view them. Furthermore, by superimposing performed and composed music structures to see the reasoning behind the decisions, we break down the wall to explaining the why and how of expressive decisions. Adding to the visual layers of concurrent physiological information from wearable sensors, we see and learn the effects of music on the heart and human physiology. We thus break down the wall to understanding music’s effect on the heart for potential clinical use in cardiovascular therapies.

What inspired or motivated you to work on your current research or project?

I was a patient undergoing curative ablation procedures for heart rhythm disorders. Twice. For different arrhythmias. Apart from the obvious benefits of the treatment, I was drawn to the images and signals inside the catheterisation laboratory. I figured I did not need to wait for a third call to start applying my music computing skills to cardiology research. Initially, I devised a way to transform arrhythmia ECG into music sequences sampled from existing music that mirrored the rhythms exactly – while on the table in the cathlab. This was inspired by an exchange with a cardiologist in training, who told me he had chosen music of different tempi for their Christmas party’s guess-that-arrhythmia game. I knew we could do better: we had already generated music with borrowed rhythms, and music information research (MIR) arose from a need to retrieve matching or similar music. This led to music pieces matching arrhythmia ECG provided by the consultant cardiologist and his engineer. The success of the mapping means that we can use MIR techniques to characterise and categorise abnormal heart rhythms, opening up new avenues for arrhythmia diagnostics. We embarked on this current research because, ultimately, the consultant, Professor Pier Lambiase, was more interested in treating patients, and in how adverse emotions precipitate dangerous cardiac arrhythmias – they had studied this in the cath lab using a stressful film clip. Independently, we had also worked on film and emotion, but with music. As a musician and engineer, I have further worked to deconstruct the mechanisms by which performers shape music expressivity to move listeners. Thus, rather than using a harrowing movie clip, we can turn to music to induce cardiac responses, in ways that are highly quantified. Thus, we began working together to investigate music’s effect on the heart.

In what ways does society benefit from your research?

Cardiovascular disease remains the leading cause of death worldwide, including in the EU. Music offers non-pharmacological, non-invasive, scalable, and pleasurable ways to alter our heart rate, breathing, blood pressure, and heart rate variability, with few, if any, side effects. Understanding how music affects the heart will allow us to better use music in cardiovascular therapies to improve heart health and reduce disease burden on society. The research will enable better decoding of music experience, from the source of this experience, the performance. The approach is rooted in musicians’ practice. The research deconstructs performers’ practical know-how to represent the ways in which expressive moments like climaxes and tipping points are created. By providing pathways to understanding, play-by-play, what is happening behind the scenes, the research will enable more precise modelling of music mechanisms and the cardiovascular changes they cause. The research will also improve public appreciation of the work of musicians and how this work impacts our bodies, our physiology. By decoding music experience and linking it to a physiological response, the research gathers evidence for music’s effect on the heart. The evidence will help us get a deeper understanding of how music affects different cardiovascular parameters. This will inform the design of digital music therapeutics for the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disorders and risks, especially in preventing arrhythmias and optimising blood pressure.

Looking ahead, what are your hopes or aspirations for the future based on your research or project?

Our hope is that, one day, music will be a common intervention in the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disorders, and that we will be able to tailor the intervention to each person based on their individual cardiovascular response to a range of music properties or events. This will provide more precise physiologically guided non-pharmacological therapeutic options for patients. Our aspiration is to refine these music-heart connections to a point where the physiological triggers for individual patients can be used not only in cardiovascular therapeutics, but also in cardiac diagnostics.

Further Information

Further Activities to have a look at