The effect of live music on our hormone levels is described for the first time.
Often, science takes a little while to prove things that humans have always believed to be true. This study is a prime example, dovetailing neatly into folk understanding.
There are no societies on Earth that do not have a musical heritage of some description.
The primal and emotional aspects of listening to, and taking part in, musical pastimes are well-known.
Over the decades, the study of music has expanded from a purely analytical investigation of the music itself, to a reflection on the psychological aspects of listening to music.
Then, as technology advanced, musical research moved into the burgeoning discipline of neuroscience, spawning the term "neuromusicology." This new field hopes to answer questions like - does music influence the mind? Are there measurable changes in hormones? And, most difficult of all - why does music affect the brain?
Over the last couple of decades, dozens of studies have set out to uncover the chemical effect of listening to music. These studies have measured changes in a number of parameters including neurotransmitters, cytokines, hormones, vital signs, lymphocytes and immunoglobulins.
A review in 2014 by Daisy Fancourt, research associate at the Centre for Performance Science in the UK, concluded that music certainly does impact a number of biological systems. These studies have almost exclusively been conducted in clinical settings or laboratory conditions, using recorded, rather than live, music. From a methodological point of view, this makes good sense as it helps to control as many variables as possible.
Fancourt, however, decided to specifically measure the effects of attending a live, public concert on steroid hormone levels. Could the feelings, which we have all experienced at some point in our lives, be measured scientifically?
Measuring a concert's endocrine output
For the recent study, the investigators used 117 volunteers from concert performances showcasing the music of composer Eric Whitacre. The volunteers were a representative sample: some were avid concert-goers, attending more than 100 concerts per year, others were visiting a concert for the first time in more than 6 months; some of the participants were musicians with decades of experience, others were not musical at all.
Over the course of two separate concerts (of the same music and duration), the researchers took saliva samples from the participants before the performance and then 60 minutes later, during the interval.
Across the board, the team found a drop in glucocorticoids, including significant reductions in cortisol and cortisone. DHEA (dehydroepiandrosterone) showed no significant changes across the whole group, but, when split into gender, DHEA levels dipped slightly in women and rose in men. Also, there was a small but non-significant drop in progesterone, but no changes noted in testosterone. The authors write:
"This is the first preliminary evidence that attending a cultural event can have an impact on endocrine activity."
Previous laboratory-based studies also found reductions in cortisol levels, but this is the first time that it has been demonstrated in a live setting. It is also the first time that a similar reduction in cortisone (a close relative of cortisol) has been noted.
What do these hormone fluctuations mean?
Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone" - when the body is under duress, cortisol spikes. The hormone readies the body for a fight-or-flight reaction by raising sugar levels in the blood, enhancing the brain's ability to use glucose and, in an effort to minimize non-essential functions, it suppresses the immune system and the digestive system.
These activities are designed to keep an organism safe and ready for action, but if levels are elevated for prolonged periods of time, they can be dangerous, hence the negative health implications of stress.
DHEA is the most abundant steroid hormone in the human body. It acts against the glucocorticoids - cortisol and cortisone. It enhances immune responses, lowers cholesterol and improves muscle building. It has also been linked to emotional responses, such as "warm-heartedness."
In stressful events, as cortisol rises, DHEA normally drops off, increasing the ratio of cortisol to DHEA and preventing DHEA from hindering cortisol's work. Conversely, as relaxation increases, cortisol levels decrease, and DHEA picks up the slack. The slight gender differences seen in DHEA levels might hint at subtly different emotional responses to live music between the sexes.
The authors are careful to note that the study was relatively small, but the bulk of the results do add weight to previous studies.
Interestingly, the results were significant regardless of the age of the participants, their experience at concerts or their overall musical ability. The authors note that this suggests a "a universal response to concert attendance among audience members."
The team plans to continue their investigations, perhaps charting the hormonal impacts of other concert genres. It will be interesting to observe whether cortisol levels dip or spike during a heavy metal gig, or a rave.
Medical News Today recently covered research investigating whether listening to music could help treat epilepsy.