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Getting in tune: Island student researching music’s cognitive and healing effects

VIU’s Mikaila Tombe working on pilot study testing subjects’ responses to different types of music
(Chris Bush/ News Bulletin)

A Vancouver Island University psychology student is probing the science behind human responses to music.

Mikaila Tombe, who is also a Nanaimo musician, has begun a pilot study to collect data on human responses to diverse styles of music. The project, which started last month with a call for study subjects, is the first phase of a series of studies, which Tombe hopes could one day lead to therapeutic and learning applications.

“I’m really interested in how different music can impact things like our mood and energy and the possibility of how it can affect other cognitive processes as well, like cognitive attention, spatial ability and whatnot … So, right now, I’m doing a pilot study because I have to figure out what music clips I’m going to use for the main study.”

Tombe’s Arousal and Valence Through Musical Stimulation pilot study will collect data about study subjects’ mood and arousal responses to a series of sample music selections.

“You can think of it as an energy arousal,” she said. “If you’re listening to music that’s really upbeat, some people would feel really energized from that, and if you’re listening to music that’s very calm or very slow, like spa music, then that, for some people, might elicit a very calming energy.”

Tombe said her lifelong experience with music sparked her interest in looking at what implications music might have in education and psychology.

“When I came here and started my studies … I got into this area of music cognition research [and] it was kind of this lightbulb moment that was, oh, wow, you can research this kind of stuff.”

Tombe said people are realizing there are cognitive benefits to learning about and playing music and how it can interconnect with various ways of learning – learning about themselves and learning how to communicate and work with others.

“In my readings, I found that there seems to be a benefit to people who not only play music in general, but if you’re playing music throughout your lifespan, especially at younger ages, it seems to hold some type of benefit later on in life, especially in those STEM areas … It just applies to everything in some type of way,” she said. “Down the road I’d love to do some longitudinal studies looking at the relationship between those people who have played music their entire lives and looking at different processes that are related to cognition and attention.”

She is already considering ways, depending on her research results, that music might aid learning and if it has potential mental and emotional therapeutic applications. She’s interested in possible benefits of intertwining music-based educational curriculums with non-music curriculums.

“Music cognition research, it’s a growing field, but are there ways that we can add to that body of literature?…” she asked. “Can those benefits be spread to other types of learning?”

Tombe was a working musician until the COVID-19 pandemic impacted live performances, but it also gave her the opportunity to pursue a degree in psychology. The research she’s currently undertaking is for her undergraduate thesis.

“Right now the music side of my life is more writing and working in other people’s recording sessions and whatnot, which is great because I still love doing that,” she said.

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Vancouver Island University student and Nanaimo musician Mikaila Tombe is gathering data to explore the effects of various music styles on study participants and whether future research could lead to music-based learning aids and therapies. (Photo courtesy Doug Tombe/Tailgate Video)

Chris Bush

About the Author: Chris Bush

As a photographer/reporter with the Nanaimo News Bulletin since 1998.
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