7 January 2021

Exploring links between music and oxytocin

The links between behavioural aspects of human musicality and the hormone oxytocin are explored in a recent thought-provoking article by prominent WA neuroscientist Emeritus Professor Alan Harvey.

Professor Harvey is a senior research fellow at The University of Western Australia and the Perron Institute for Neurological and Translational Science. He has a life-long passion for music and is a talented musician.

His article Music, oxytocin and human sociality was published by music education advocate, the Music Trust. In the article, Professor Harvey speculates that knowledge of the link between human musicality and oxytocin may be useful in a therapeutic context.

Oxytocin, a chemical messenger produced in a region of the brain called the hypothalamus, has long been known to play a critical role during and after childbirth, Emeritus Professor Harvey writes.

Many experimental human oxytocin studies involve intranasal delivery of the peptide. Most of the studies describe positive, prosocial effects, including changes in empathy, recognition and interpretation of emotions, enhanced group co-operation and trust, and a reduction in the perception of stress and anxiety.

Such influences align closely to the impact that music has on human cognition and emotion, he says.

“In a group context, music-related activities, including dance, encourage the formation of bigger social networks, help to define cultural identity, and may represent a ‘safe-haven’ in which individuals can interact and share experiences without revealing their innermost thoughts and fears.

“A better understanding of the relationship between music therapy and neuromodulators such as oxytocin may yield positive effects when applying these tools together in a clinical context.

“Combined protocols may be of benefit in treating, for example, some neurodegenerative diseases and various psychiatric conditions, assist in the control of chronic and post-surgical pain, and perhaps be a useful aid in the management of neurodevelopmental conditions such as autism spectrum disorder.

“Time will tell,” Professor Harvey writes.

Professor Harvey’s book Music, Evolution, and the Harmony of Souls was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. He is currently a member of Perth Symphonic Chorus and its chamber choir.

Alan Harvey’s complete report was first published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.