Rosey Chan My mother used to hum to me all the time, melodies. And it just taps into, kind of, very warm, nostalgic parts of my life from childhood.
I was very lucky that we’re very close. And she would always sing to me and she would always hum to me. And, some Chinese melodies, which I still remember today, I find myself humming them when I’m making myself a cup of coffee, like, “Oh, must actually learn the words that.” But the melody is enough to kind of, yeah, it takes me straight back to those happy memories.
Dacher Keltner When we hum, we breathe out, activating our vagus nerve, helping our heart rate slow down. When we hear slow and gentle melodies, the same can happen.
I’m Dacher Keltner, and today we’re continuing our series on music and how it affects our well-being.
We’re joined by pianist and composer Rosey Chan to look at how music can support our emotional health, helping us feel more relaxed, calm, and content.
Later in the show, we look at the science of lullabies, and how they have similar effects across cultures.
But first, I’m excited to talk with Rosey Chan.
Rosey, thanks so much for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
Rosey Chan Thank you so much.
Dacher Keltner I feel like in listening to your music, you’re doing something that is interesting both for music and also for the science of happiness, which is you’re approaching it as an act of contemplation and as a way to find calm and contentedness. What led you to that?
Rosey Chan I’ve always really enjoyed creating multisensory experiences in my performances. When I’m out on tour, and when I’m doing performances like in Asia or in Europe, I really enjoy collaborating with other artists. So, going from that rather dynamic environment into when the pandemic happened, it was just like, “OK, boom, me, my piano. I’m very lucky. I’m very fortunate the piano is an extension myself, what am I going to do?”
Dacher Keltner Yeah.
Rosey Chan It shifted my writing approach, and suddenly it became much more reflective and meditational, and it was almost like turning a mirror onto myself, you know, just thinking about how I was feeling emotionally. And, a few of my friends, they said to me, you know, I have like teething babies and I’m going a bit stir crazy here now. I’m just, like, stuck at home. So, I was sending music to help my friends and family at the beginning. And I kind of created a mind piano playlist, a private one, just for those people.
Rosey Chan And they were sending back messages like, can we have some more? It seems to be working. I thought, oh, this is so nice. I’m glad to know that, because first, the most rewarding thing is I’m able to kind of heal myself self-medicate through my own playing at home and improvising and just being at the piano and knowing it was also helping my friends and family was the most rewarding feeling possible. And so, it inspired me to write Sonic Apothecary.
Dacher Keltner Can I ask you about a specific song on Sonic Apothecary that definitely made me feel like I was slowing down in a wonderful way, which is Water is Life?
Rosey Chan Oh, fantastic. The very last track has been specially designed to help you go to sleep. I have a lot of friends who have serious insomnia. I’ve tried everything on them, every tea, every herbal pill every — so, it’s been really interesting, like testing this on them and the kids, too, during this time.
I try to use the piano as my voice and sometimes I would hum a tune and then I would kind of harmonize it on the piano. And I think, OK, well, that’s very soothing.
And what is it that if I’m trying to go to sleep, that would activate like, you know, is there anything that could make me have a bad night’s sleep or is there anything that could help me get a really quality night sleep. How many minutes duration should I compose to help that process?
Music has been an aesthetic choice, I listen to all sorts of music. But it’s probably the first time in my life that I recognized and realize that music is a therapy tool; as being, like, the forefront of a vital therapy tool.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, so well put. And you could think about the cultural reasons why, you know, music used to be right at the heart of culture and then it got separated into aesthetics. And, you know, and that’s what I love about your work, Rosey, is it feels like you’re encouraging us to approach this contemplatively. You’re like, this is a form of healing.
Rosey Chan Yeah.
Dacher Keltner You know, Rosey, one of the really interesting questions right now in the science of music is, we all have these unique preferences and we respond to different elements of music. Some people are rhythm-based. Some people are, you know, timbre-based. And, you really have returned time and time again to melody. And I’m just curious, what is it about melody you think that’s so central to you?
Rosey Chan Melodies just tap into themes of memory for me and storytelling. Sometimes at the end of a performance, I will do an improvisation and I’ll say this is an improvisation based on a love thing that I wrote. And then and I kind of stop myself off because I want to tell them the story. But then I say, “I’m going to let you make up your own story in your head.”
Because, I love talking to these members of the audience often and finding out how they interpreted it. And there was one woman once and she said to me, “You know, thank you so much for not elaborating on your story, because it gave me the room to kind of,” she said, “This is the first time I cried since my mother passed away three months ago.”
And my heart, just like the whole like my heart just like, “Oh, my God, I’m so sorry.” She goes, “No, you really helped me. That was kind of, I think I needed that, that you kind of healed me in some way. It was the beginning of my mourning process.”
And so I realized, the more I play and the more I kind of tap into these things, the more powerful I realized the music can be. And I also realized that it’s the responses I get from performing more melody-based pieces generally has a much better response than if I’m playing something that’s more rhythmic or beat-driven because I also write electronic music, too. But I always go back to solo piano melody and just simple basics.
What I’m trying to create is a kind of musical pharmacy without sounding too clinical about that. And, I think that, with the science, it just feels like that with getting closer and closer to figuring out with the music, you know, what it is, what kind what genre, what timbre with slowly closing in on the variables to hopefully one day to have a musical prescription that says this. Try this for your dementia or for your depression or your insomnia. And I just really want to be at the forefront of that and learn and be around when that day actually happens, because I do genuinely believe that music is a healing tool.
I have a family that are in traditional Chinese medicine, that they’ve been using music as a healing tool for a long time. I feel like it hasn’t really been so much promoted in the West as much. So I really want to be part of that. I think also as a musician, it’s also a duty to be able to give back what you have, your gift, and find ways to use your skills to contribute to being here. So, it’s just, it’s fascinating.
Dacher Keltner Well, Rosey, I want to thank you so much for being on the science of happiness. I will be a frequent customer at your music pharmacy and can’t wait to see what you’re coming up with next. It’s been wonderful talking with you.
Rosey Chan You, too. Thank you so much.
Woman singing: You are My sunshine, my little sunshine …
Dacher Keltner We asked you to share your favorite lullabies with us, and we got some amazing ones from around the world.
Woman singing in Finnish.
Dacher Keltner Finnish.
Man singing in Japanese.
Constance Bainbridge Because we do link them with having these therapeutic effects or relaxation effects on infants, that does really raise this question of has music actually explicitly evolved for a reason? So that makes lullabies very special.
Dacher Keltner More, on the science of lullabies after this break.
Lullabies seem simple, one of the most basic forms of music.
Yet their effects are more profound than we might think.
New research suggests that lullabies speak a universal human language, one with deep evolutionary roots.
Our senior producer Shuka Kalantari reports on the science of lullabies and how they have similar effects across cultures.
Mila Bertolo Our hypothesis here was that if it’s true that lullabies have an evolved function, then infants should be calmed by lullabies cross-culturally.
Shuka Kalantari Mila Bertolo is the lab manager at The Harvard Music Lab. She and her colleagues ran a study to see if infants’ felt soothed by lullabies from cultures around the world, in languages they’d never heard before.
Constance Bainbridge It’s tricky to get opinions from infants, you can’t really just ask, “Hey listen to the song and tell me what you think it is.”
Shuka Kalantari Constance Bainbridge was a research assistant at the lab, and a co-author of the study.
Constance Bainbridge So how we handled this was. We have these infants come into the lab and they watched animated characters singing either lullabies or songs that had different functions. So these included love songs, dance songs and healing songs.
So, you’ll see the cultures range from like the Arctic subarctic region all the way to Polynesia, Central America.
Lullabies in non-English languages.
And then we also wanted to make sure we had both female- and male-sounding voices.
Lullabies in non-English languages.
And, to get at how the infants were responding, we actually had a Fitbit-like device that was picking up on heart rate, as well as something called electro-dermal activity, which is arousal or excitement levels as detected through the skin. And we also looked at how pupil dilation changed.
Shuka Kalantari So if someone is feeling soothed by a lullaby, what would be happening to our skin?
Mila Bertolo Basically what’s happening here is that whenever you have any kind of emotional reaction to something doesn’t need to be a huge emotional-reactivity. But even very subtle things, like the difference between looking at a picture of a chair versus looking at a picture of someone you’re very familiar with, there’s a subtle amount of reactivity there that is detectable at the surface of the skin as increased, basically like pore sweat activity.
Shuka Kalantari So, you had these infants hear these clips of eight songs produced from across different cultures across the world. How long was the whole experience for them?
Mila Bertolo Each song was only about 14 seconds. The attention span is such that you can’t have them listen to music for like minutes on end as they would in their natural context on their parents lap. But in order to just get at whether there really is any kind of immediate reaction to musical features and not broader context, we kept each clip to 14 seconds.
Each kid only heard eight lullabies. So this is like a five minute experiment in total for each kid.
Shuka Kalantari That’s a relatively short amount of time to have any effect. How can anyone have a reaction in such a short amount of time? So what came of it?
Mila Bertolo It is a very short clip, so it being very short and the fact that we’ve had a response is just pretty strong evidence I think that what we’re really seeing is a non-learned immediate reaction to certain musical features.
When an infant heard a lullaby they relaxed to it. Their heart rate went down, their electrical activity went down and their pupils constricted.
Constance Bainbridge We also found that age didn’t matter for the infants. So, whether they were two months old or 14 months old, they had similar relaxation effects. And maybe you would think that with more exposure to music, having lived a little bit longer, there might be more of an effect. But the fact that even those really young infants had that similar effect is extra evidence that this might be something innate, which I thought was really cool.
Mila Bertolo There really just is something about certain patterns of sounds that, no matter what your experience was or wasn’t, that the human brain is just kind of attuned to perceiving as calming.
Shuka Kalantari Can you explain what those common features are? And why do we find it relaxing as an infant?
Constance Bainbridge Sure. So, typically with lullabies, you’ll see less melodic and rhythmic complexity than, say, a dance song, for example. And you also won’t see much accenting. So that’s sort of the high amount of volume on the onset of different tones, which I think is pretty intuitive in the sense that songs that are very complicated will likely require more engagement to kind of understand what’s going on. They’re not going to be as predictable and so therefore they might not be as relaxing. And then with the accenting, if anything, that should engage a startle response because high volumes, at least in different animal species, will be used for alarm calls to alert danger, which is not relaxing, obviously.
So I guess we think of it as having smooth contours, and that smoothness might sort of reflect that lowered heart rate because you wouldn’t see as many pulses in a short amount of time. So yea, I think you could think of smoothness as a — maybe you can think of a roundness sort of feeling rather than being locked into a lot of tight rhythms, which would look more like harsh spikes.
Shuka Kalantari When I listened to the clips of the lullabies in your study, they all had that kind of similar resonating feeling of calm. What is it about that repetition, those elongated sounds that make us feel so good?
Mila Bertolo Infants can’t survive on by themselves, they need a lot of attention and care from their parents and some things are obvious, like when a caregiver gives them food or shelter and some things are not obvious, like a parent’s reassurance to their child that I’m not only here right now, but I reassure you I will forever be here. And these kinds of things, because especially when a kid is preverbal, the way an adult can signal that to an infant is with this kind of credible signal that like, look, I’m investing all this energy and producing this beautiful signal for you, purposefully, for you. I’m not making these sounds, like, randomly. And it’s these kinds of emotional reassurances, basically, that an infant is after, which is why hearing this signal that is very expensive for an adult to produce, they could be using that energy for other things is what is really reassuring for a listener.
Dacher Keltner Thank you, Shuka.
In our next episode, we continue exploring the science of music and happiness.
We’ll hear from Gambian musician Sona Jobarteh about how music can connect us across cultures.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining us on The Science of Happiness.
What music makes you feel more connected to your own culture and to people from other cultures? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or use the hashtag #happiness pod.
Thanks to Kelly Hardy in El Cerrito, California. Jonna Vuoskoskin Oslo, Norway. And Patrick Savage in Fujisawa, Japan for sharing your favorite lullabies with us.
The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science center and PRX. Our senior producer is Shuka Kalantari. Production assistance from Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our associate producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor in Chief is Jason Marsh.