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Your Brain on Flute

Flute Playing Physiology

In Brief

  • We measured brain wave and heart responses while playing flute and listening to flute music.
  • A key heart metric improved significantly when participants were playing Native American flutes.
  • Results of this study can give us some guidance when developing music facilitation activities.
  • There is a potential for using Native American flutes in therapeutic settings for specific clinical conditions.


Flute Playing Physiology

How do we respond, physically and mentally, when we breathe into our flutes? Could the positive effects that we feel from playing flutes indicate a potential use of Native American flutes in music therapy settings? As an alternative therapy for specific clinical conditions, could playing the Native American flute have a place alongside traditional breath-centered practices such as Yoga, Qigong, and Zazen?

Many research studies have explored the effects of listening to music (see [Cervellin 2011] for an overview.) Far fewer studies have investigated the effects of playing music on our minds and bodies. After an exhaustive search of the literature, we could find only a few studies on the effects of playing Native American flutes, and those studies used self-report methods rather than objective measurements of basic brain and body metrics. So, during the Flute Haven Native Flute School, we carried out a research study to measure the effects of both listening and playing on the heart, nervous system, and brain.

It is common in a single research study to test a very limited set of hypotheses. This approach makes data analysis straightforward and increases the statistical significance of the results. However, our goal was to identify which directions might be fruitful for future research.

Our curiosity and quest for future directions caused us to look at a wide range of measures and test many hypotheses. This approach, combined with the relatively small number of participants (15 flute players) and several other limitations, places our research within the context of an “exploratory pilot study”. While we identified several interesting trends and future research directions, we consider the results of this study as “preliminary” and suggest additional research to confirm the effects that we found.

The detailed results have been recently reported in several articles for the scientific community ([Miller-EB 2014] An Exploration of Physiological Responses to the Native American Flute and [Miller-EB 2014a]). See those articles for a full description of how the study was done and the limitations associated with our results.

This article looks at the results of our research study from the perspective of flute players and facilitators of community music gatherings. What are the preliminary lessons learned? How can we use them as players and facilitators? In this article, we have kept the literature citations to a minimum, since they have been included in our two publications cited above. This article also includes some results that have not been reported earlier.

The Study Outline

We enlisted 15 volunteers to participate in the study from the Flute Haven Native Flute School. Each of them took about an hour off from the program of workshops and playing sessions, bringing two of their flutes a short distance to a lab that we set up for the study. Their flutes were:

  • a “lower-pitched flute” — a mid-range E minor flute or lower, and
  • a “higher-pitched flute” — a mid-range G minor flute or higher.

Participants were fitted with sensors on their scalp and the fingertip of one pinky to measure heart, skin, and brain activity. Participants then put on headphones and listened to an audio program, which guided them through a program of relaxation periods, listening to several kinds of music, and playing their flutes. Measurements taken during an initial period of silent relaxation served as a “baseline” to compare against measurements taken during later periods of listening and playing.

Throughout the study, we recorded the electrical activity of the brain in seven frequency bands, which provided an indicator of the overall emotional state of the participant. We also recorded the level of skin conductivity, which is an indicator of nervous system arousal and sometimes anxiety. This measure of arousal increases as small moisturized particles (sweat) on the skin are produced.

For heart metrics, we recorded precise pulse-beat measurements at the fingertips. These pulse-beat measurements allowed us to determine three cardiac measures: heart rate, volume of blood flow per heartbeat at the fingertip, and a key metric called “heart rate variability”, which is described below.

Summary of the Significant Results

Figure 1 summarizes significant results that we found during this study. The remainder of this section provides details and discusses those results. If you find the results in this section too detailed, feel free to skip forward to the Practical Applications section.

Figure 1. Changes in Physiology when Playing Native American Flutes

Figure 1. Changes in Physiology when Playing Native American Flutes. Large image

The effects described below are based on several types of comparisons:

  • a comparison between the period of flute playing and a “baseline” period of silent relaxation;
  • a “trend” indicating a comparison between the first half and the second half of the period of flute playing; or
  • a comparison between the periods of playing lower-pitched flute and playing higher-pitched flute.

Items marked with indicate that the result showed statistical significance and indicates a result with strong statistical significance. However, we again stress that, since we tested many hypotheses in this study, the effects that we found need to be confirmed in subsequent research studies with larger populations of flute players.

Heart Rate, Blood Flow, and Skin Conductivity

The first time participants played their flutes during the study, we asked them to play their lower-pitched flute. As we might expect, compared with baseline silent relaxation, their heart rate increased, they had more skin conductivity, and the frequency bands of electrical brain activity associated with muscle control increased. The trend while playing lower-pitched flutes was toward an increase in the volume of blood flow per heartbeat in the fingertips.

During the second flute-playing period, we asked participants to play their higher-pitched flute. Again, skin conductivity increased during flute playing when compared with baseline silent relaxation, and the trend while playing was toward an increase in the volume of blood flow per heartbeat.

The heart rate of participants was lower during the second flute-playing period than during the first flute-playing period. This might be expected, again because higher-pitched flutes are smaller and also because there may have been less anxiety during the second flute-playing period. However, contrary to what we might expect, average heart rate when playing higher-pitched flutes was actually lower than during the baseline period, when they were sitting in silent relaxation. This divergent response — heart rate decreasing while skin conductivity increased — begs further investigation.

Heart Rate Variability

When you inhale, your heart rate increases. As you exhale, your heart rate decreases. Similar variations in your heart rate occur on longer cycles of minutes, hours, and throughout the 24-hour sleep-wake cycle.

These normal variations in your heart rate are called “heart rate variability” or “HRV.” Higher HRV — i.e. a larger variation in heart rate — turns out to be a reliable indicator of health and general resilience to stress. A very steady heart rate — i.e. low HRV — is associated with a range of clinical conditions such as anxiety, hypertension, COPD, panic disorder, depression, and is also a predictor of sudden cardiac death.

With the goal of effectively treating those clinical conditions, various techniques have been explored to raise HRV. In particular, biofeedback training has been found to have various degrees of effectiveness in the treatment of asthma, PTSD, hypertension, anxiety, COPD, recurrent abdominal pain, music performance anxiety, and fibromyalgia. In the treatment of major depressive disorder, biofeedback training to raise HRV demonstrated effects that appeared to be stronger than drugs often prescribed for the condition.

Our study found that HRV increased an average of 84 percent when playing Native American flutes when compared with baseline silent relaxation. The increase in HRV compared to baseline silent relaxation was statistically highly significant when playing both lower-pitched flutes and higher-pitched flutes.

We found that subjects with less meditation experience correlated a greater increase in HRV. The increase in HRV did not correlate strongly with age, gender, or experience playing Native American flutes, although this could be due to the limited number of participants in our study.

Studies have established that adults typically breathe in cycles of about 3 to 5 seconds. During our study, we found that playing the Native American flute tends to increase the breath cycle to about 10 seconds. Other research has shown that HRV is highest at breath cycles of about 12 to 15 seconds — or about 4 to 5 breaths per minute. We believe that the increased length of the breath cycle that naturally occurs during flute playing is a major factor causing the increase in heart rate variability.

Brain Activity

Several frequency bands of brain activity showed interesting results during the periods of playing.

Alpha. Brainwaves in the range 8 to 12 Hz — often called the Alpha band — are associated with a light meditative state, relaxation, and closing of the eyes. Alpha waves decrease with eye opening and mental exertion.

During our study, Alpha waves decreased in relation to the preceding silent relaxation period while playing both higher-pitched flutes and lower-pitched flutes. The trend reversed during the playing period itself, with Alpha waves trending upward during playing for both higher-pitched flutes and lower-pitched flutes. This suggests a pattern of decreasing Alpha waves during initial playing followed by increasing Alpha as playing continues. This pattern is consistent with participants closing their eyes, relaxing, and attaining a light meditative state, but only after playing for a period of time — about 90 seconds in this case.

It is also interesting to note that the highest Alpha waves measured during our study were during the two silent relaxation periods that followed periods of listening to music. While it was not a goal of this study to explicitly examine the effects of silence, the enhancement of Alpha waves agrees with prior research that has demonstrated activation of the auditory cortex during periods of musical silence ([Kraemer 2005]), and the positive impact of silence in music on retention and recall ([Olsen-GD 1995]).

The increase in Alpha band activity from baseline silent relaxation to flute playing correlated strongly with years of experience reported by the participants playing Native American flutes. We can surmise that, over time, players become more adept at quickly entering a light meditative state when they begin playing.

Beta. Brainwaves in the 15 to 25 Hz range — termed the Beta band — are usually associated with alert, active thinking or anxious concentration.

Our study showed different reactions in the Beta band for novice and experienced players. When compared with baseline silent relaxation, novice players showed significant decreases in Beta activity when playing both higher-pitched and lower-pitched flutes while experienced players showed slight increases in average Beta brainwave activity during the flute playing periods. We propose two conjectures:

  • Less experienced players are not as habituated to the tones of the Native American flutes, where the more experienced players exhibit a reduced novelty effect; and
  • More experienced players tend to make greater mental use of music theory rules to create melodies.

Theta. The 4 to 8 Hz range is termed the Theta band. Elevated Theta waves have been found in various studies during creative processes, deep meditation, drowsiness, inattention, and is associated with working memory.

We measured increasing trends in Theta band activity during the periods of playing higher-pitched and lower-pitched flutes. We also found a significant increase in theta band activity in novice players, but not experienced players, between the silent relaxation periods at the very ends of the study — i.e. between the initial baseline silent relaxation period and a similar period of silent relaxation after all the periods of playing and listening to music.

Our results provide some indications of movement during flute playing towards the attributes associated with increased Theta band activity. The overall experience of the study — listening, playing, and interim silent relaxation — did increase Theta activity in novice players. We suspect that these measured trends would be more robust if longer playing periods were used in future studies.

Delta. The 0.5 to 4 Hz range is termed the Delta band. These slow waves dominate brain activity in adults during slow-wave sleep, a phase of deep, non-rapid eye movement sleep.

When compared with the silent relaxation period preceding the two periods of playing flute, our study found that flute playing had the opposite effect on Delta than it did on Alpha band activity: While Alpha waves decreased, Delta wave increased for both lower-pitched and higher-pitched flutes. This increase in Delta showed no significant trends during the flute playing periods.

Practical Applications

Although this broad-based study was not designed to provide definitive answers to specific questions, we can infer some potential guidelines from the results. This section combines the results of our study with information from prior research studies to suggest some practical applications for flute players and facilitators of community music gatherings. A number of assumptions are implicitly made in these suggestions, but we believe they are reasonable.

Breathing Rate

Playing the Native American flute appears to slow breathing rate from about 15 breaths per minute to about 6 breaths per minute. Encouraging players to slow their breath rate a bit further — to about 4 to 5 breaths per minute — may have some health benefits.

One approach we use in workshops is to have people play “one-breath solos” — first on their voices and then moving to their flutes. Depending on what a person plays, we might ask them to play the same solo slower, hold some of the notes longer, or play it two times in a single breath. These activities combine a memory exercise (repeating the same one-breath solo) with an exercise that slows their breath rate.

Another technique is to have players focus on their inhalation. This type of mental focus often causes players to breathe in more deeply and slows their overall breathing rate. Another technique, used by Cornell Kinderknecht, is to focus on “squeezing out some extra air” from the lungs to extend a phrase.

Length of Playing Time

The lengthy time it takes for flute playing to affect Alpha and Theta waves suggests that longer playing periods are preferable. Longer playing periods are common in community drum circles, but can be a challenge to facilitate in flute gatherings. Here are some ideas of things you can do with the group as a whole, or with segments of the group, while inviting individual flute players to solo:

  • Have everyone chirp very short notes to a rhythm that you establish. If the notes are very short, the differences in pitch will not produce too much dissonance.
  • Have everyone hold the same long tone as a drone. If people have different key flutes, you can ask them to hold these fingerings, which should all sound roughly the same pitch:
    • D flutes hold Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed closed or Finger diagram open open closed open open open,
    • E flutes hold Finger diagram closed open closed open open open,
    • F# flutes hold Finger diagram closed closed open closed open open,
    • G flutes hold Finger diagram closed closed closed open open open,
    • A flutes hold Finger diagram closed closed closed closed open open,
    • B flutes hold Finger diagram closed closed closed closed closed open.
  • Establish a simple repeated pattern and have all flutes of a particular key play that pattern. You can engage others in the circle who are not playing the pattern by asking them to create texture sounds, such as the sound of the wind by breathing across the finger holes on their flute.

Showcasing Players

One technique in drum circle facilitation is to showcase a single player, either as a solo or playing above an established pattern. In practice, having that player be more experienced seems to have better results. Experienced players tend to be adept at more musical techniques, and our study suggested that experienced players can enter a light meditative state more quickly when they play. This suggests that players with more experience can quickly become attuned to the group and the situation, and they may also serve as a model for less experienced players on playing “in the moment”.

Using Silence

The effect of silence noted in the previous Brain Activity section underscores the general belief among musicians in the power of silence. Jazz pianist Keith Jarrett famously said that “Silence is the potential from which music can arise”.

Along these lines, experiment with the effect of adding slightly longer pauses when you play. Does it engage your audience? Do they “lean forward” just a bit?

If you are facilitating a group with a conducted improvisation, you might include an occasional “stop/cut”. This can be done by clearly conducting the entire group from full play to complete silence, then marking four or eight beats of silence before signaling them all to resume playing. You could emphasize this technique by inviting other people in the group to try their hand at conducting a stop/cut.

A common game in small ensembles is to “pass the solo.” With the group engaged in a steady-state repeated pattern, each player takes a turn soloing over the pattern. To incorporate silence, you could ask an ensemble to “pass the silence.” After a steady-state pattern is established by the group, players take turns stopping for a few bars. You could make it more challenging by asking them to re-join the music with a different part, and see how the pattern changes as the silence moves around the group.

Disengage the Visual

One of the most powerful techniques we have found for facilitating a deeper listening experience with a group of flute players is to have them close their eyes. This simple technique helps participants focus on the sound, raises Alpha brainwaves, and seems to reduce any level of anxiety associated with playing in front of other people.

We often use this technique when we want to emphasize an exercise, activity, or teaching point. Simply having the group close their eyes and repeat the activity can be a powerful aid to learning.

Future Directions

Our study is in an area of research that deals with some fundamental questions. What are the physical and mental effects of playing music? What are the implications for music therapy? Is playing music effective as an alternative therapy for specific clinical conditions? Our initial goals were to develop techniques for measuring the effects of Native American flute playing, to record basic metrics of the body and mind, and to identify fruitful directions for future research.

We believe, despite the limitations of our study (described in detail in [Miller-EB 2014] An Exploration of Physiological Responses to the Native American Flute), that these goals have been met. And, in particular, the results showing a significant increase in heart rate variability during flute playing indicates that our exploratory approach to measuring physiological metrics has proved fruitful.

The past several decades have been witness to a profound shift in the practice of Western medicine. In addition to new medicines and procedures for treating the sick, there is a growing focus on wellness care, alternative therapies, and the mind-body connection. Many of these alternative modalities come from traditional practices such as Yoga, Qigong, Tai Chi, various forms of meditation, a broad range of expressive arts, and from biofeedback training.

Many of these alternative modalities share a common focus on the breath. There is a growing body of evidence for the effectiveness of various breath practices on a variety of clinical conditions. Flute playing can also be seen as a breath practice. Is it possible that Native American flute playing could be effective for some clinical conditions? In answering this question, we have a number of indicators:

  • Research has established that Biofeedback training to raise HRV is “probably efficacious” for asthma ([Wheat 2010], page 238);
  • Our study demonstrated that playing Native American flute raises HRV;
  • Throughout the course of this study, we have received many unsolicited accounts from asthma sufferers testifying to the value of playing Native American flutes for their condition;
  • There is a body of research showing various benefits of wind instruments on parameters of lung function.

We believe that the confluence of these indicators suggest the possibility of a direct causal link between playing the Native American flute and the reduction of the symptoms of asthma. We suggest that a compelling direction for future research would be a direct investigation of the effect of a music therapy program of Native American flute playing on asthma.

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