Roadmap paper lays foundations for new field of research: music, computing, and health

Anja Volk: “Key to interdisciplinary collaboration is experiencing the added value”

“This actually marks the start of a whole new field”, says Anja Volk (Information & Computing Sciences). Together with 14 other researchers, she recently wrote a roadmap paper in the journal Music & Science about the new research field ‘Music, computing, and health’. “We’ve had so many positive responses. People have really been waiting for this to come along. That give me an enormous amount of encouragement and inspiration to keep going.”

Anja Volk: "Music rocks computer science"

“My own background is in music information retrieval: the processing, analysis and organisation of musical information from digital music files,” Volk explains. “That field has been around for a bit more than 20 years. But for some time, we’ve been thinking: we’d actually like to apply our research to health and well-being as well. During my Musicology studies, I did an internship as a music therapist in a hospital, and I experienced first-hand how much music can do for people’s health. We’ve also seen more and more developments in music technology over the past few years, alongside other digital applications in health care in the context of eHealth.”

Why start a new field now?

“We know that music therapy is valuable, and like other areas of health care it is increasingly using technology. But we need better scientific foundations in order to understand the underlying mechanisms. Music therapists work a lot with musical improvisations. We can use music information retrieval to help analyse the musical material in order to describe therapeutic processes. For example by automatically analysing musical structures in the improvisations, and drawing insights from that to quantify what happens in a therapy session.

“For their part, music psychologists are good at collecting and processing data: why does it work, and what are the underlying cognitive mechanisms? They often study that using standardised experiments with large numbers of test subjects, but it’s also important to apply that knowledge in clinical contexts. And in music information retrieval, we were looking for a valuable application for our research that could actually make a difference in people’s lives.”

Schematic representation of the various research fields involved in Music Technology for Health

How does one go about starting a new field of study?

“There are already a lot of smaller projects going on, but there wasn’t really a unifying vision. At universities, we talk a lot about the value of interdisciplinary research, but it often proves difficult to do it in a structural manner. It takes time and patience to understand methods and terminologies from another field, and to find out where there’s actually support for interdisciplinary collaboration. To me, the key is that you really have to experience the added value of the collaboration. For us, that happened when we actually sat down together in person.

“In March 2019, we brought together around 50 people from different backgrounds in a multi-day workshop at the Lorentz Center in Leiden: music therapists, music psychologists, health care professionals, and experts from music information retrieval and robotics. That was a real eye-opener. Everything fell into place; all the ways we could complement one another with music technology for the health care sector. We really had this feeling: we have to tell the rest of the world about it! We as workshop organizers then coordinated the writing of this roadmap paper to give an overview of all of the possibilities and opportunities that we see.”

We really had this feeling: we have to tell the rest of the world about this!

What kinds of possibilities?

“Music therapists often use weekly sessions, for example, and they frequently notice patients falling behind after a week. They would like to give patients some kinds of tools for self-study: serious games based on music that they can use to practice at home. Or another example: we know that music is very motivating, so can we use it to make rehabilitation more efficient? And then we should carefully study whether it really helps, and if so, how. Music can do a lot, but it’s not some kind of magic.”

What is your dream for this new field?

“In general, I’d like to make people more aware of the importance of music in our lives. In games and films, in shops and other physical environments; you name it. And for the field itself, I’d like more and more researchers and professionals to join so that we can all help one another. Integrating different scientific perspectives is crucial in order to develop and utilise music technology for health and well-being. I’d really like to collaborate on technology to support music therapy, and to scientifically study what works and why. For example, we’re currently working together with UMC Utrecht on a serious game for children with autism, to test and train rhythmical skills. My ultimate dream is for us all to make a tangible contribution to health care and to make people’s lives better.”


Music, Computing, and Health: A Roadmap for the Current and Future Roles of Music Technology for Health Care and Well-Being
Kat R. Agres, Rebecca S. Schaefer, Anja Volk*, Susan van Hooren, Andre Holzapfel, Simone Dalla Bella, Meinard Müller, Martina de Witte, Dorien Herremans, Rafael Ramirez Melendez, Mark Neerincx, Sebastian Ruiz, David Meredith, Theo Dimitriadis, Wendy L. Magee
Music & Science, 31 May 2021, DOI 10.1177/2059204321997709
* researcher affiliated with Utrecht University