Festival Showcase: can music change our immune system?

Research into the health benefits of music has rapidly expanded over the last decade, with studies as diverse as the playing of war songs to improve walking in Parkinson’s patients, to the use of pop music to increase speed and accuracy in operating theatres. But how much do we actually know about how music affects the inner workings of the body? With the help of the Tenovus Cancer Care choir, Daisy Fancourt will explore how music can impact on the mind and body and consider its potential bio-evolutionary origins in this talk on the last day of the Festival.

A study published in April of this year has shown attending live music performances can reduce a person’s levels of the stress hormones, cortisol and cortisone.

Cortisol is produced by the body in response to physiological or psychological stress. In small doses, it can have positive effects by improving alertness – however, chronically elevated stress hormone levels can worsen existing medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure.

Researchers studied 117 volunteers attending two concerts of music by composer Eric Whitacre; they provided saliva samples before the performances and then again during an interval, an hour later. When samples were tested, they showed across-the-board reductions in stress hormones present in the saliva samples after the interval.

These results are in line with previous studies that showed listening to music in a controlled setting such as a hospital can reduce these stress hormone levels. The study focused solely on the effects of relatively calm, classical music, so more research will be needed to ascertain whether other genres of music elicit different effects on the endocrine system.

Nevertheless, the study opens the question of how engaging with music and the arts in cultural settings can influence biological and psychological states to enhance people’s broader health and well-being.

If you’d like to find out more about the effects of music on our health and immune systems, Daisy Fancourt’s talk will be taking place on the last day of the Festival at 11:30pm, with a choral performance. More information can be found here.


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