Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 09 July 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334

Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers

Björn Vickhoff1*, Helge Malmgren2, Rickard Åström3, Gunnar Nyberg4, Seth-Reino Ekström5, Mathias Engwall6, Johan Snygg7, Michael Nilsson1,8 and Rebecka Jörnsten9
  • 1Center for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation, Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • 2Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • 3Professional Musician and Composer, Musikalliansen, Torslanda, Sweden
  • 4Department of Clinical Physiology, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • 5Cantor, The Swedish Church, Sätila Parish, Hällingsjö, Sweden
  • 6Department of Cultural Sciences, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Sweden.
  • 7Department of Anaesthesia and Intensive Care, Sahlgrenska University Hospital, Gothenburg, Sweden
  • 8Hunter Medical Research Institute, University of Newcastle, Newcastle, NSW, Australia
  • 9Mathematical Sciences, University of Gothenburg and Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg, Sweden

Choir singing is known to promote wellbeing. One reason for this may be that singing demands a slower than normal respiration, which may in turn affect heart activity. Coupling of heart rate variability (HRV) to respiration is called Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). This coupling has a subjective as well as a biologically soothing effect, and it is beneficial for cardiovascular function. RSA is seen to be more marked during slow-paced breathing and at lower respiration rates (0.1 Hz and below). In this study, we investigate how singing, which is a form of guided breathing, affects HRV and RSA. The study comprises a group of healthy 18 year olds of mixed gender. The subjects are asked to; (1) hum a single tone and breathe whenever they need to; (2) sing a hymn with free, unguided breathing; and (3) sing a slow mantra and breathe solely between phrases. Heart rate (HR) is measured continuously during the study. The study design makes it possible to compare above three levels of song structure. In a separate case study, we examine five individuals performing singing tasks (1–3). We collect data with more advanced equipment, simultaneously recording HR, respiration, skin conductance and finger temperature. We show how song structure, respiration and HR are connected. Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of the singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously. Implications concerning the effect on wellbeing and health are discussed as well as the question how this inner entrainment may affect perception and behavior.

Keywords: choral singing, heart rate variability, respiratory sinus arrhythmia, frequency analysis, autonomic nervous system

Citation: Vickhoff B, Malmgren H, Åström R, Nyberg G, Ekström S-R, Engwall M, Snygg J, Nilsson M and Jörnsten R (2013) Music structure determines heart rate variability of singers. Front. Psychol. 4:334. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00334

Received: 31 December 2012; Accepted: 22 May 2013;
Published online: 09 July 2013.

Edited by:

Edward W. Large, Florida Atlantic University, USA

Reviewed by:

Chris Muller, Ghent University, Belgium
Robert J. Ellis, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, USA

Copyright © 2013 Vickhoff, Malmgren, Åström, Nyberg, Ekström, Engwall, Snygg, Nilsson and Jörnsten. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Björn Vickhoff, Center for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation, Institute of Neuroscience and Physiology, Sahlgrenska Academy, University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg, Småkullav. 23, 424 70 Olofstorp, Sweden e-mail: bjorn.vickhoff@neuro.gu.se

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