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Missouri S&T Researcher Looks To Standardize List Of Music For Brain Research

"Row, Row, Row Your Boat" is one of the melodies Amy Belfi tested to create a list of music that brain researchers can use.

ROLLA — Therapists and researchers have long used music to diagnose and treat disorders such as dementia and Alzheimer's, but there hasn’t been a standard on what music to use. 

Amy Belfi, a psychology professor at Missouri University of Science and Technology, is trying to change that via a list of 107 melodies ranging from "Happy Birthday" to "Sweet Caroline."

The list has been tested through hundreds of surveys that had people rate melodies on eight different questions relating to how well they are known and what kind of emotional response they elicit: from “relaxing” to “stimulating” and from “negative” to “positive.”

The goal is to make it easier and more consistent for other researchers to use music to learn about the brain.

“Researchers don’t want some songs to have super high familiarity and some to be super low. They don’t want some to be really emotional and some to be not,” Belfi said. “So the ratings are really nice because they can choose specific songs for specific purposes.”

Credit Missouri S&T
Missouri S&T Psychology Professor Amy Belfi

“‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’, for example, has very low age of acquisition when people first hear it, high familiarity and high namability,” Belfi said. “That melody can be used in some basic and baseline research very reliably.”

Befli also elected to re-create the simple melodies using a computer program producing a basic piano sound to avoid the familiarity relating to a specific recording rather than the melody itself.

“If you have a person with dementia listen to these songs and they say, ‘Oh, I don’t know any of them,’ then it’s highly likely due to something about their disorder. Because on average these tend to be really familiar and really well named,” Belfi said.

The list and its subsequent research could pay dividends in a variety of fields, said Melita Belgrave, a music therapist and professor at Arizona State University. 

She said music therapists use a more complicated and individualized approach to using music to treat patients on a one-on-one basis. But she also said this kind of research is valid and can help her field.

“Psychologists and neuroscientists are going to have assessment measures that we don’t have, and that we don’t have access to. And we do assessments with music that they don’t have access to. So it’s everybody having a seat at the table and getting to learn from each other,” Belgrave said.

And that kind of reaction is what Belfi is hoping for. Her research has been published in the journal Behavior Research Methods, and the list of music and audio samples is available to any researcher who wants to use them. 

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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