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Seeing live music could reduce your stress hormone levels, study finds

Music therapy.

FIONA MACDONALD
13 APR 2016
 

For the first time, researchers have shown that watching live music could help reduce people's levels of stress hormones, including the steroid cortisol. 

Over the past decade, a range of studies have shown that listening to music - and even singing it - can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. But until now, no one had looked into the benefits of actually attending a concert. And if this new study is anything to go by, you might want to grab a ticket to your next local gig or festival. 

 

"This is the first preliminary evidence that attending a cultural event can have an impact on endocrine activity and down-regulate stress," researchers Daisy Fancourt and Aaron Williamon from Imperial College London write in the journal Public Health.  "These results are in line with 22 previous studies showing that listening to music in the controlled setting of either a laboratory or a hospital can reduce cortisol levels."

To test out the benefits of live music, Fancourt and Williamon took 117 volunteers - ranging from avid concert-goers to people who admitted rarely watching live music - to two concerts showcasing the music of coral and orchestral composer Eric Whitacre (you can check out some of his work below).

The volunteers had their stress hormones level tested with a saliva sample before each performance, and then 60 minutes later during intermission. In an attempt to eliminate variables, both concerts played the exact same music and went for the same amount of time.

The team found that, across the board, levels of the stress hormones cortisol and cortisone had decreased during both concerts.

Cortisol is produced when the body is under physical or mental stress, and although it can have positive effects in small doses - such as making us more alert and productive - over long periods of time it's been associated with an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and impotency. So bringing those levels down regularly is pretty important. 

What was really interesting is that it didn't seem to matter how musical the volunteers were, or what their background was - the concert appeared to have a pretty similar effect on everyone.

 

"It is of note that none of these biological changes were associated with age, musical experience or familiarity with the music being performed," the researchers write. "This suggests there is a universal response to concert attendance among audience members."

To be clear, this study involved a pretty small size, and it only looked at the effect of calm, classical music performed - which is a far cry from going HAM at a Slayer concert.

The researchers admit that they also didn't have a control group, and so follow-up studies need to be done to confirm the link between live music and stress hormone levels - as well as tease out exactly what kind of biological benefit this has on people.

But it's a promising first step that we're going to take as permission to head to a gig this weekend (for science).

"This study opens up the question of how engaging with music and the arts in cultural settings can influence biological and psychological states," the researchers conclude, "and, consequently, the potential of cultural events to enhance people's broader health and wellbeing."

If you want to get a little zen in the meantime, here's a pretty incredible 'virtual choir' performance of one of Eric Whitacre's pieces:

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