An interview with Dr. Miranda Yeoh

Type of article: Interview

How to cite this article:

Miranda Yeoh. Effects of classical music and preferred music on mental health: an interview with Dr. Miranda Yeoh. Electron. physician, May 12, 2016, doi:


Music is a combination of seven basic elements, i.e., melody, harmony, rhythm, form, texture, dynamics, and timbre, although not all of these elements have to be present in the same degree (1). Although music, on its own, is not a language, this does not negate that music has meaning (1, 2). This inherent meaning is brought out clearly when music is combined with the lyrics or words in a song (1). Thus, music becomes a neurobiological tool that influences our mental health, our psychology, and our emotions because it replaces and extends language (3). Why have people listened to music since the dawn of history?  Surely, there must be a variety of reasons that music continues to be among the top 10 means of deriving pleasure (4), and this contributes to people’s happiness, well-being, and mental health. Although Dr. Miranda Yeoh was a biology/biochemistry teacher by profession, she earned her Master’s degree in Music Education, studying music preferences among undergraduate students in relation to music characteristics, their training in music, and their familiarity with various types of music. She also earned her Ph.D. degree in Education Psychology during which she investigated the music preferences of teenage students in relation to listener psychology and environmental influences. Among the variables investigated was the personality of listeners (psychoticism, extraversion, neuroticism), and other variables also were included, such as the mood of the music, the characteristics of the music, and students’ familiarity with the music. She believed that musical training did not necessarily lead to a career in music, but she did believe that music could make significant contributions to a person’s sensitivity to others and enhance emotional empathy and the ability to get along with others. As a lecturer in Biology, she has used her knowledge and skills gained from music education and psychology, and she has found those skills to be indispensable in interacting with students and peers. In this interview, Dr. Yeoh shared her knowledge related to research in music and how music contributes to human happiness and mental health.


What empirical evidence is there that listening to music brings happiness or pleasure to people?

Salimpoor et al. (5) investigated the pleasure/ happiness created by music, and they stated that pleasurable responses to music may range across a spectrum from mild mood changes to intense chills of pleasure.  Using excerpts of instrumental music that were considered neutral but became pleasurable to the point of inducing chills in respondents (n=26), Salimpoor et al. (5) found evidence for a relationship between pleasure induced by music and emotional arousal. By measuring emotional arousal based on temperature, galvanic skin response (GSR), heart rate, respiration rate, and the amplitude of blood volume pulse (BVP), Salimpoor et al. (5) suggested that the intensity of pleasure derived from listening to music suggests thatpreferred music actsas a stimulus upon the dopamine pathway or the pleasure neuro-transmitter pathway of the brain of the individual in much the same way as drugs and delicious foods.  From the 26 music excerpts that induced pleasure chills, 18 were western classical/art music, a jazz piece, a folk piece, and a few pop-rock pieces.  Salimpoor et al. (6) found a 6-9% relative increase in subjects’ (n = 8) dopamine levels when they listened to their preferred music as opposed to a control condition, and one subject recorded a 21% increase in dopamine level, which created feelings of pleasure and happiness.  A 6% increase in dopamine can be induced by eating delicious food, while a 22% increase can be caused by cocaine.  Salimpoor et al. (6) concluded that the findings explained why music is valued in daily life and in rituals, in marketing, and in films. The piece of music that most often induced pleasurable chills in participants was ‘Barber's Adagio for Strings’;this is a western classical piece (


Besides pleasure/happiness, what advantage can be derived from music?

Besides contributing to pleasure, relaxing music is able to reduce anxiety, thus improving our mental health. Knight and Rickard (7) studied the effect of a piece of relaxing music (Pachelbel's Canon in D major - on undergraduates, n=87, 43 females, and 44 males who were exposed to the stressful task of preparing for an oral presentation, either in the presence of that piece of music or in silence. The stressor caused significant increases in anxiety, heart rate, and systolic BP in the male and female control groups. However, the stress-induced increases were prevented by exposure to Pachelbel's Canon in D major, and this effect was independent of gender. The findings provided experimental evidence that relaxing music is an effective way to reduce anxiety.  Nilsson et al. (8) reported that listening to music as a means of therapy reduced the stress resulting in from an operation by significantly reducing serum cortisol.  Seventy-five patients who were to undergo open hernia repair were assigned randomly assigned to three groups, i.e., an intra-operative music group, a post-operative music group, and a silence group (control group). Stress responses were determined during and after surgery by measuring the level of plasma cortisol and blood glucose. They found that listening to music reduced the stress hormone, cortisol, significantly in the post-operative music group after two hours (a 45% decrease in cortisol as compared with 16% in the control group). This group had less anxiety and pain and required less morphine after one hour than the control group, although the groups had no significant differences in their immunoglobulin A (IgA), blood glucose level, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen saturation. The results of the study indicated that music decreases post-operative pain and that music therapy during the post-operative period reduces anxiety and pain, leading to less need for the use of morphine. Reduced stress contributes to improved mental and physical health of patients. Yeoh et al. (9) defined ‘Listener Psychology’ as the manner in which the mind of the listener works to influence music preference behaviour. The results of that study indicated that there was a negative relationship between neuroticism and music preference among the students who do not study music (r = -0.148, p = 0.05 level, n = 231). This implied that the greater the degree of neuroticism, the less the non-musician likes the music stimulus. The musical stimulus appears as ‘arousing information.’ Neurotic people tend to be anxious and have poorer mental health.  They may be characterized by a negative emotional, depressed condition and by suffering from more anxiety that other normal people, and they may have a lower activation threshold in their sympathetic nervous system or visceral brain (10). They do not like to be at the receiving end of an arousing stimulus that may be present in metal, heavy metal, or techno music (3, 11). Dollinger (12) also indicated that anxious neurotic people preferred music that was less arousing. Trappe (3, 11) warned that heavy metal and techno music may be dangerous for intensive-care patients.  


That has dealt with the benefit of music to anxious persons and persons under operation stress.  How can music benefit younger persons, including students?

Harmat, Takács, & Bódizs (13) investigated how music could improve sleep quality in three groups of students (n=94, ages 19-28) with poor sleep. The participants in the first group listened for 45 minutes either to relaxing or soothing classical music. The participants in the second group listened to an audio-book at bedtime for three weeks, while the control group (Group 3) received no intervention. The respondents provided data on sleep quality before the study and weekly during the intervention. The results showed that Group 1, in which the participants listened to music, had significantly improved sleep quality (p < 0.0001). The quality of sleep did not improve statistically significantly in the audio-book or in the controls. The occurrence of depressive symptoms was reduced significantly in the music group (p < 0.0001), but this was not the case in Group 2 participants, who listened to audio-books. They concluded that soothing classical music is an effective distraction in reducing sleeping problems that often result in fatigue and depression. Music can reduce sympathetic nervous system activity and decrease anxiety, and it also may have positive effects on sleep through muscle relaxation and distraction from thoughts, thereby contributing to mental and physical health.


What research is there to show that listening to music enhances mental health?

Concerning this important subject of the ability of music to distract us from negative thoughts, the research that has been conducted over the past decade has shown that persistent negative thoughts and emotions or a mental preoccupation with such a negative emotional experiences is likely to impact human health. Poor mental health often leads to impaired physical health, e.g., susceptibility to viral and yeast infections and to several related non-communicable diseases (3). Music can help to regulate emotions, and this is essential to good mental health (14).  For the sake of our mental health, we should listen to "healthful" music (3). 


What does research say concerning how preferred music can be used to improve mental health?

Now, we come to the question of what music to select.  In some of the studies we reviewed, the preferred music was used (5, 6). However, according to Trappe (3), western classical and meditation music are the best choices.  The brief review of research in this area also indicated that western classical music is the genre most often used or was the preferred music of the respondents. The music of composers such as Bach and other Baroque-period composers, and Mozart, an early classical period, effectively improves mental health. Much of this music, at 60 crotchets per minute, activates both hemispheres of people’s brains simultaneously. This synchronized activation allows maximum processing of information and learning (3). However, Trappe (3, 11) warned that heavy metal or techno music are ineffective or even dangerous because they may increase stress and/ or cause life-threatening arrythmias.  


Besides the western classical tradition, what music from other cultures is likely to contribute positively to mental health?

To this group of healthful music, this author adds traditional ethnic/folk music and commercial pop and soft rock music, such as western classical or art music and traditional ethnic music in Asian countries, such as India (, China (, and Malaysia (, as well as Middle East countries, such as Iran (, Saudi Arabia(, and Jordan (, which have mixed timbres from string, wind, and percussion instruments as its instrumental ethnic/folk music, that may be used to enrich the human voice in traditional songs and opera (1, 9). All of this traditional ethnic music is rather similar in quality or timbre to western classical/art music, which is the traditional European music, and it acts on both hemispheres of the brain to optimize information processing (3).


What contribution can popular music make to mental health?

Popular music was found to be the most preferred genre among Malaysian undergraduates and teenagers (1, 9).  This is the music that is most frequently aired over the media in Malaysia and many other countries; also, it is the genre that is most familiar, especially to non-musicians. Familiarity with the music has been found to increase liking or preference for popular music (1, 9, 15). The results of Yeoh et al.’s study (9) showed that the five most preferred music excerpts were commercial music (Backstreet Boys, Phil Collins, Westlife, Christina Aguilera and Siti Nurhaliza), showing teenagers’ preference for pop music, while the sixth was an ethnic Malaysian music/folk piece, Kompang. This was observed for the whole sample (n=436), the musician sub-sample (n1=205),and the non-musician sub-sample (n2=231).However, when all of the preferences forthe 24 excerpts were compared, providing the results for the whole sample, the musician (or music students) sub-sample and the non-musician (non-music students) sub-sample showed the highest preference for pop music and the next in line was rock music.  The results were in agreement with previous studies on music preferences of students (1, 16-18).  Bergland (19) grew up on soft rock of The Carpenters, ABBA, John Denver, and Olivia Newton John, and he loves this genre. He stated that the music that we like is a powerful tool to improve our mood and mental health (19).Often, the music that we like depends on our psychology (9).In conclusion, I would extend the set of music that improves mental health to include ethnic/folk instrumental and commercial pop and soft rock music. Young people, students, and undergraduates all over the world love commercial pop and rock as shown in Yeoh (1) and Yeoh et al. (9). Older people enjoy the music of their youth that could be the 70s, like Bergland (19). This commercial music needs no introduction. Based on the research findings as discussed in this paper, I recommend that, whatever our personality may be, we must use our own preferred music to calm our fears and worries, to encourage ourselves in facing daily challenges, and to improve our own mental health.


Dr. Miranda Yeoh used to be a biology/biochemistry teacher by profession. later, she earned her Master’s degree in Music Education, studying music preferences among undergraduate students in relation to music characteristics, their training in music, and their familiarity with various types of music. She also earned her Ph.D. degree in Education Psychology.



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