The Science of Music
The decision of what to study at University was something I deliberated on for a long time. When it came to having to choose between Music and Biology, it was Biology that came out as my first choice. My reasons centred around the fact that, having gone through musical training, I would never forget how to use my core skills, much like riding a bike (although I suspect Sir David Attenborough may have also influenced my decision somewhat…)! I therefore decided to pursue Biological Sciences as my course of choice, while making a promise to myself to keep music a major part of my life. There are times when I feel I could be doing more to keep to this promise, but the Cantus Ensemble has offered me stunning opportunities to stay true to this over the years.
In this post, I wanted to share with you these two great passions of mine by talking to you about the Science of Music! There are many area of research I could focus on in this post, but above all I wanted to bring to light the latest scientific research showing the beneficial effects of music on wellbeing, mental and physical health, and patient recovery. In fact, as part of their ‘Why Music?’ weekend broadcast from the Welcome Collection on Euston Road, Radio 3 presenter Claudia Hammond recently discussed the many issues and recent discoveries about the connection between music and health. Many of the points in this post have come from that programme, selected clips of which are available on the iPlayer radio app here.
"Since singing is so good a thing, I wish
all men (and women) would learn to sing"
The great William Byrd once said, ‘Since singing is so good a thing, I wish all men (and women) would learn to sing’. I’m sure that everyone in Cantus would agree with Mr Byrd in this instance, but why is singing such a good thing? In the last few years, there have been a number of studies using complex monitoring procedures to investigate exactly what the beneficial effects of singing and making music are. A BBC article in 2013 initially got me interested in this topic. The title was, ‘Choir singers ‘synchronise their heartbeats’’. Now, you may think ‘why does that matter?’, but the article goes on to explain that on average, choral singing has the overall effect of slowing down the heart rate. A slower heart rate has long been known to decrease risk of Cardiovascular Heart Disease (CHD), stroke and a whole host of other conditions associated with stress.
Since 2013, there have been many other successful studies to further elucidate the curative properties of music. Before I delve into these studies, I would like to put a word out there which has caused a wide range of responses from people that I have spoken to: Mindfulness. According to the NHS website, Mindfulness is, ‘The process of paying more attention to the present moment, to your own thoughts and feelings, and the world around you’. There are obviously many ways in which different people can achieve their own state of ‘Mindfulness’, but making or listening to music is an easily accessible and successful way of achieving it. Even if you don’t believe in this particular theory, surely the hour or so of focussed emotional concentration must be a good thing for the soul.
Below are some of the studies that have delved into these theories in more detail, along with a brief summary and a link to more information for those curious to find out more about the discoveries around music & health!
One charity in the UK works with many individuals with a huge range of physical and social needs from autism to cancer and neurological disorders. The charity has published a number of books on the topic which can be found here.
Koelsch et al.
A study by Koelsch et al. investigated music in the treatment of affective disorders and discovered that ‘music-evoked emotions can change activity in virtually all core areas of emotional processing, fulfilling basic human needs’. Read more here.
Fancourt et al.
A report by Fancourt et al. looked at the therapeutic effects of music on the nervous, autonomic endocrine and immune systems. It highlighted the discoveries that music can have huge effects on anxiety (particularly in pre-op patients), cause a rise in immunoglobulins (antibodies) and a decrease in histamine production and therefore allergic response.
Kreutz et al.
A study by Kreutz et al. investigated levels of stress related chemicals produced by the body and discovered that once again, music had an emotionally therapeutic effect on the participants. More info here.
Staricoff & Clift
A publicly available study by Staricoff & Clift summarises the research which is being carried out at Chelsea and Westminster hospital in a wide range of fields. More info here.
There are plenty more publications out there discovering this trend between music and health, which just goes to show how clear this correlation is becoming. I'd like to think that with Cantus, my life is not only enriched through the ability to sing with such a talented group of singers, but that my mental and physical state has also benefited from musical mindfulness!