Starting university is a big step for students. It usually means a major sea change in a young person’s experience. For some, it can be stressful to the point of anxiety.

Music therapy may be a valuable tool. It’s often said that music can soothe and heal. To what extent can it help students with anxiety? That’s what researchers in the departments of music therapy and psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University are trying to determine.

The study, which has been recruiting students this fall, uses some high-tech equipment and software to gather precise empirical data from music therapy sessions, says principal researcher Charlie Macleod. Modelled after a Finnish study, the project aims to show the quantitative progress of a series of sessions.

Students have been recruited through social media, the campus wellness centre and presentations in classes. People who self-identify with anxiety take a psychometric test to establish a base line. Then there are eight sessions with a clinician, providing time to discuss the student’s emotional state and issues of concern, followed by a music improvisation session with various percussion instruments. Software records features of the music produced, including tone and note density. The researchers analyse the data from the course of the eight sessions and the results of a follow-up psychometric test.

During the sessions, the student and clinician also talk about the subjective effect of the music produced. What did the music represent for that person? How did the person feel after making these sounds?

“We’ve known for a long time that music therapy is effective,” says Macleod. “Science requires empirical data. Research projects like this can provide solid evidence.”

Previous music training is not a prerequisite for the study, says Macleod, who is also a percussionist, with degrees in music and psychology. All that’s required is an openness to making rhythmic sounds. The wellbeing of the participants is the most important factor, and he is confident that the study will demonstrate quantitatively the benefits of music therapy.