Scientific findings in the growing, dynamic field of music therapy hold promise for the comfort, support and healing of the sick, disturbed, mentally retarded and aged.

So says Bruce Saperston, who heads Utah's only music-therapy training program, at Utah State University. And enrollment there - 40 majors, and increasing every year - shows that the specialty is a popular one.Besides supervising practical application of music therapies by his students in special education classes, nursing homes and other clinical facilities, Saperston contributes to research that's going on worldwide in this fascinating field.

People have known for ages the value of music in healing, relaxation and fighting depression, and they don't have to be told that music can cheer them up, or calm them down. But Saperston and like-minded researchers want to pinpoint how and why these results take place. This requires documented research, not anecdotal suggestions.

Last November, Saperston co-chaired a seminar on music therapy in the psychology department at the University of London. He's also a joint editor of "Music in the Healing Process: a Handbook of Music Therapy," to be published in London. The book will detail new music-therapy research and its clinical applications in Norway, France, Great Britain, Australia and the United States.

Saperston's own chapter concerns a technique he has developed for altering the rate of heartbeat by using physiologically interactive music (PIM). The technique is based on the phenomenon of entrainment, a term borrowed from physics.

In 1665 Christian Huygens, a Dutch scientist, wrote to his father that two pendulum clocks mounted on the same bracket, with their pendulums swinging differently, could pull each other into synchronization.

This was the first recognized example of what contemporary scientists call entrainment - the locking into phase of previously out-of-step oscillators.

"The most common illustration of this is tuning the horizontal and vertical on your television," said Saperston. "Nor do the oscillators have to synchronize exactly; when they get close enough, even though not on the exact same frequency, they synchronize. But for entrainment to take place, the two oscillators must already be pulsing at nearly the same rate."

He recently conducted an experiment at USU in which he attempted entrainment between music and heart rate in 64 volunteer students, none of them musicians ("musicians do respond differently," he said), divided into four groups.

The first group was given music slow but consistent; the second, music at a tempo above the heart rate; the control group did not listen to music; and the fourth received PIT (physiologically interactive tempo) music whose tempo was just under the heart rate. The greatest decrease in tension came with the PIT group; and as their heart rate slowed, the tempo of the music was slowed, always staying just a beat under the heart rate.

"We did cause some entrainment," said Saperston, who intends to continue his experiments next year. Practical applications for entrainment might be in surgery, to increase or decrease heartbeat, or in helping hypertensive individuals who are unable to benefit from traditional stress reduction methods.

In studying entrainment, physiologists have dealt mainly with circadian (cyclic) rhythms such as body temperature, blood pressure, production of adrenal hormones, blood sugar and concentrations of essential biochemicals throughout the nervous system.

When you're feeling "out of sync" you may truly be so; your circadian rhythms may not be functioning optimally, a state that is sometimes chronic in disturbed people. This also happens among the normal population due to stress, or change of schedule, such as medical personnel or factory workers who have to change from day to night duty.

Saperston also plans to work with Dr. Vijendra Singh, a biology research professor at USU, in the new field of psychoneuroimmunology, attempting to verify the connection between music and immunity.

A study at Temple University showed that music did increase the immune response. Groups of research subjects were given music alone, imagery (imagining themselves in a state of wellness and wholeness) alone, a combination of the two, and silence.

The first two groups showed a significant increase in immune response; the third group did not increase, perhaps because the music and imagery were not compatible, and the group subjected to silence decreased. Researchers concluded that music did significantly increase the immune response, and that imagery can profitably be health-directed.

"We believe that the hypothalamus is the brain center directly connected with the limbic system, which processes emotion, and imagery formation," he said. "The hypothalamus is also linked with the pituitary gland, which controls hormonal function. Biologists are finding that emotional responses have an effect on the pituitary gland through the hypothalamus, which results in the release of hormones that help you deal with stress and feel good.

"People are healthier when they are happy," he said, "and people who receive placebos that they believe in often do get better. Research has shown that you metabolize according to how you feel about it. Music may eventually play a large part in elevating the spirits, contributing to a positive immune response."

Saperston is setting up a laboratory to personally investigate the possibilities of vibro-acoustic therapy, along the lines of experiments carried out by Olav Skille and Tony Wigram, working in Norway and England, respectively.

The value of ultrasound, or very high-frequency sound waves, to promote healing and well-being is well-known. But now vibro-acoustic therapy, utilizing low-frequency sound vibrations, is achieving physical, emotional and cognitive responses from people who had seemed inaccessible to other forms of contact.

The benefits of low-frequency sound in healing have been known for thousands of years, and in primitive cultures such sounds were used in healing.

In Norway in 1980, researchers devised the "music bath," or low-frequency sound massage, with multiple speakers delivering the sound waves directly to the body ofthe client through a mattress.

The music used with this vibratory music bed is recorded over a pulsed, low-frequency tone, and is invariably gentle, improvised and without pronounced rhythm, such as soothing "new age" music. Music has been written specifically for this therapeutic process, for example an improvisation on the tone E by the Finnish composer Otto Romanovski.

After five years of experimentation, a conference was held in 1987 to see what had been accomplished. Positive reports from music therapists, physiotherapists, nurses and teachers indicated that vibro-acoustic therapy was effective in treating disorders ranging from rheumatoid conditions to circulation problems and muscle spasms, even as severe as cerebral palsy.

Researchers found consistent relief of pain, with benefits extending to sports injuries and over-use syndromes. This therapy also benefits insomniacs, who tend to return to normal sleep patterns after treatment. In palsy victims, deterioration of muscles and onset of fixed deformities can be delayed.

Among aged clients using the vibratory equipment, technicians noted reduction in muscle spasm, loosening of fixed limbs and muscles, return to mobility, decrease in pain and resultant happier attitude. Even edema seems to yield somewhat to low-frequency sound treatment, because of improved circulation.

Therapists working with the aged or spastic in Harperbury Hospital near St. Albans in England have found that vibro-acoustic treatment results in relaxation in half the time that physical therapy takes; and patients enjoy and look forward to their treatments. Two or three treatments weekly have resulted in improved movement in the range of 13 to 30 percent over a period of time.

The time may come when vibro-acoustic therapy will be a prescribed treatment for certain ills, said Saperston, who along with Singh will investigate its potential for increasing immunity.