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Reduce Stress with live music

Listening to live music and watching it performed can lead to reduced levels of stress. So going to concerts could be good for your mental health and wellbeing.


‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast’ – from the play The Mourning Bride, by William Congreve.


A live music performance for just an hour can significantly reduce the body’s levels of stress hormones. There have been lots of studies that examined this in a laboratory setting, but the most recent is the first to explore the relationship in a cultural space, that is, in a concert hall.

Recently conducted research carried out by scientists at Imperial College London, University College London and the Royal College of Music has established that singing can have a profound impact on the immune system. Singing for just one hour significantly increases levels of the immune proteins the body uses to fight serious illnesses – including cancer.


Singing, and enjoying it, has also been found to significantly reduce amounts of stress hormones (such as cortisol) and increase immune proteins (such as cytokines) that boost the body’s ability to fight serious illness. The current thinking is that singing reduces stress and anxiety, taking the strain off the immune system, allowing it better to use valuable resources to fight infection and disease.


Researchers have conducted two separate experiments at different venues to measure the effect of live music events on stress. With a total of 117 participants between the two performances, the researchers collected saliva samples from each person just before the concerts. They then collected another sample 60 minutes into the performance.


To replicate the concert experience for both experiments, all facets of the performance were kept the same: the same players and conductor, the same length of the performance, the same musical genre, and the same key pieces of the program.


When they tested the saliva samples taken during the interval, the researchers found a significant drop in cortisol and cortisone, both of which are involved in stress. They also found a drop in the cortisol/cortisone ratio, which is indicative of heightened stress when found at high levels.


The audience participants were recruited from mixed musical backgrounds and experience, including both regular and infrequent concertgoers and musicians and non-musicians. The findings were the same across the two experiments.


The results of this study go further than more than 20 previous laboratory studies, and suggests that attending a live performance leads to lower biological stress. However, this could also be because of the more social setting of a live performance, with it’s expectations and excitement… and of course because music is always better when heard live, and the music played at the [classical] concerts was of a particularly calm nature.


None of the biological changes were because of age, musical experience or familiarity with the music being performed.


More studies are in the pipeline and scientists hope soon to understand how other musical genres affect these hormone levels. It would be interesting for instance, to carry out the same tests on audience members at heavy metal concerts or at say, a recital of Stockhausen’s greatest hits.*


However, the researchers hope to open the discussion on whether cultural activities can help to reduce stress over time to improve a person's overall wellbeing – a worthy goal if ever there was one. This suggests there is a universal response to concert attendance among audience members.


The Mozart effect – the idea that getting your children to listen to Mozart from a very early age, even in the womb, will improve their intelligence – has gone out of fashion, mainly due to an overwhelming lack of evidence, although the positive effect of classical music on children’s development should not be underestimated.


However, listening to pleasant classical music, and that includes Mozart and also waltz king Johan Strauss, has been found to significantly lower blood pressure and heart rates.


Mozart’s music is relaxing because of the above average degree of periodicity – in other words it repeats the same pattern at regular time intervals. Researchers have found that babies whose mothers listened to the music of Mozart during pregnancy were calmer and less aggressive. Strauss’ waltzes may be relaxing because they are based on simple structures, catchy melodies and periodically recurring forms.


The study involved 60 participants who listened to either Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in G minor, Johan Strauss’s Unforgettable Melodies or Abba Classic, a 2009 compilation which includes Thank You For The Music, The Winner Takes it All and Fernando, while a control group of a further 60 people rested in silence.


The heart rates, blood pressure and the measure of cortisol, a hormone that indicates stress levels, were taken from all the participants.


Classical music was found to be just as effective in reducing blood pressure and heart rate stress markers even in people who didn’t normally listen to classical music. Abba’s lack of effectiveness may have been because the use of words in the songs may have stimulated the brain rather than calming it.


This research was reported in Deutsches Arzteblatt, the journal of the German Medical Association.


* Stockhausen: an early 20th century shit composer of unlistenable to music; utter crap, all of it. Just my opinion of course - but if you don’t believe me, try listening to some. Or if you can’t be bothered doing that, try sticking a red-hot poker in your ear while beating yourself with an industrial wire brush. If you enjoy that, you’ll enjoy Stockhausen - guaranteed to increase stress. 


Copyright Andrew Newton.

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