Dr. Jessica Grahn

Researching the Connection Between Music and Movement


With both Music Therapy Awareness month and Brain Awareness Week taking place in March, we explore the conjunction between music, Parkinson’s and the brain through research on the effects of music on movement, specifically the symptoms experienced by people living with Parkinson’s.

Dr. Jessica Grahn is a cognitive neuroscientist, an associate professor in the Brain and Mind Institute and the Department of Psychology at Western University. She also runs the Music and Neuroscience Lab and was funded by Parkinson Canada’s National Research Program, researching how music and sound affect movement.

Julie Wysocki, Parkinson Canada Director of Research and Partnerships recently spoke with Dr. Grahn on the state of research around music and its mysterious impact on movement and, by extension, Parkinson’s.

Julie: Do we know if music impacts Parkinson’s symptoms?

Dr. Grahn: We do know that music has the effect of transforming their movements for some people. But we still don’t know very much about the mechanisms of how it affects activities in anyone’s brain, whether they have Parkinson’s or not. 

One thing that’s clear is that music promotes powerful responses in our motor systems, even if you’re not moving to the music. A lot of the research is around why these motor areas are responding. The applied side of this research would be how to harness this understanding for people with movement problems, including people living with Parkinson’s. 

Julie: What is it about the music that changes people’s movements and how?

We are still trying to piece apart the qualities of different types of music on different people. For example, if a piece of music has a groove, does it make a difference? If it’s music that you like, does that make a difference? And are any benefits really about music being a pacing signal, like a metronome, in which case maybe people’s natural beat perception ability is a factor? 

Julie: And has research been able to answer some of those underlying questions?

What we’ve learned is that it’s true that music that makes people want to move has a more significant effect on movement in terms of stride velocity and step length, and this is also true of people living with Parkinson’s, though to a lesser degree. And, surprisingly, we found that it doesn’t matter whether you enjoy the music or not. The ability to feel the beat seems to impact people’s ability to take advantage of music, but even that isn’t always the case. Musical training doesn’t seem to explain a lot of the variance we see either. In every study, some individuals seem to show a significant benefit from a musical intervention while others do not. It will take a lot more piloting, testing and optimizing of these mechanisms on people who don’t already have a disease burden for us to understand precisely how music might positively impact the motor system of people with Parkinson’s.

Julie: Are there any breakthroughs on the horizon that might help answer some of the questions?

Yes! One of the research limitations has been that we have been using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to do this research, and it’s not the best environment because you can’t walk in an MRI scanner, and it’s very noisy. However, our lab has recently obtained a portable technology called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). It’s a cap, so it’s a versatile option for really looking at the interactions between the auditory sound processing areas and movement processing areas while people are walking.  

I’m excited about this because I think it will help us figure out what is going on in the brain by looking at different groups of people and figuring out the mechanism of what happens when they move to music. Then the next step will be figuring out whose brains will respond positively and why.

Julie: Despite the questions that remain, would you say it’s a good idea for people living with Parkinson’s to try incorporating music and movement into their lives?

I think so because one of the brilliant things about music is you can tailor it to what you want, and there are no adverse side effects. There is no harm in trying – it’s free. We know that moving together as a group to music is something that humans like to do. It leads to enjoyment and improved social support, which translates to health and social benefits that are pretty important, in addition to any potential movement benefits. So, I would say yes, try incorporating music and movement into your life somehow.

Increased research demonstrating the therapeutic effectiveness of modalities like music is a necessary step to a better quality of life for people living with Parkinson’s. Thanks to supporters like you, Dr. Grahn and other researchers in the field can continue their essential work to understand the relationship between music and Parkinson’s movement symptoms, speech, cognitive issues, and even mental health.

Another current example of ongoing work is Parkinson Canada’s co-funding of the research of PhD Candidate Esztella Vezer, who ran a choir as part of her master’s research. She noticed that singers who participated gained confidence and stronger, louder voices. She is now exploring the role of social connection and functioning in Parkinson’s severity.

This vital work will continue and yield answers to these and other questions with your support.

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