Music can be soothing or stirring, it can make us dance or make us sad. Blood pressure, heartbeat, respiration and even body temperature – music affects the body in a variety of ways. It triggers especially powerful physical reactions in pregnant women. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig have discovered that pregnant women compared to their non-pregnant counterparts rate music as more intensely pleasant and unpleasant, associated with greater changes in blood pressure. Music appears to have an especially strong influence on pregnant women, a fact that may relate to a prenatal conditioning of the fetus to music.
For their study, the Max Planck researchers played short musical sequences of 10 or 30 seconds' duration to female volunteers. They changed the passages and played them backwards or incorporated dissonances. By doing so, they distorted the originally lively instrumental pieces and made listening to them less pleasant.
The pregnant women rated the pieces of music slightly differently, they perceived the pleasant music as more pleasant and the unpleasant as more unpleasant. The blood pressure response to music was much stronger in the pregnant group. Forward-dissonant music produced a particularly pronounced fall in blood pressure, whereas backwards-dissonant music led to a higher blood pressure after 10 seconds and a lower one after 30 seconds. "Thus, unpleasant music does not cause an across-the-board increase in blood pressure, unlike some other stress factors", says Tom Fritz of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig. "Instead, the body's response is just as dynamic as the music itself."
According to the results, music is a very special stimulus for pregnant women, to which they react strongly. "Every acoustic manipulation of music affects blood pressure in pregnant women far more intensely than in non-pregnant women", says Fritz. Why music has such a strong physiological influence on pregnant woman is still unknown. Originally, the scientists suspected the hormone oestrogen to play a mayor part in this process, because it has an influence on the brain's reward system, which is responsible for the pleasant sensations experienced while listening to music. However, non-pregnant women showed constant physiological responses throughout the contraceptive cycle, which made them subject to fluctuations in oestrogen levels. "Either oestrogen levels are generally too low in non-pregnant women, or other physiological changes during pregnancy are responsible for this effect", explains Fritz.
The researchers suspect that foetuses are conditioned to music perception while still in the womb by the observed intense physiological music responses of the mothers. From 28 weeks, i.e. at the start of the third trimester of pregnancy, the heart rate of the foetus already changes when it hears a familiar song. From 35 weeks, there is even a change in its movement patterns.
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Thomas Hans Fritz , Marian Ciupek, Ambika Kirkland, Klas Ihme, Anika Guha, Jana Hoyer & Arno Villringer , Enhanced response to music in pregnancy , Psychophysiology, 19 May 2014