Can music boost your immune system?
Photo Roger Zahab / by Jeremy Reynolds
To boost your immune system, doctors recommend a healthy diet that embraces fruits and veggies and has no vitamin deficiencies. But how about a little Prokofiev?
Sound like quackery? It’s not. Numerous studies, including a 2019 review in the journal Annual Research & Review in Biology, have found that both performing and listening to music can have a significant impact on the immune system. And as COVID-19 fosters global tension and fear, everyone is looking for ways to mitigate that stress and boost the immune system to ward off viral infections.
“Certainly music has an impact on the brain, and anxiety and stress impact the immune system,” said Andrew Levin, a neurologist at the University of Pittsburgh.
Dr. Levin, an amateur trumpet player who performs with several local ensembles, said he’s not an expert in the ways music interacts with the brain. But it works for him.
“Music is a part of my stress release paradigm,” he said, adding that he hasn’t had much time lately to play. “We know that music can affect brain states, so I don’t believe it is much of a stretch to say that music can indirectly affect our physiology, and there is research that supports this notion.”
According to a 2013 review in the journal Brain Behavior and Immunity, the emotional and psychological effects of listening to music have direct impact on biomarkers and hormone levels. Immunoglobulin A, which plays a crucial role in immune functions, was cited as being “particularly responsive to music.” There is also general consensus among researchers that listening to music reduces cortisol levels, with one 2007 study in the Journal of Music Therapy by A.J. Ferrer stating that music can be “as effective as diazepam” in reducing vital signs of anxiety.
So, does it matter what sort of music you’re listening to?
It does, but only whether you like the song. Prior associations and relationships with different types of music affect how your body responds. In general, research indicates that “relaxing music” (i.e. slower tempo, peaceful music) is better for calming frayed nerves, decreasing blood pressure and respiration and settling the heart rate.
Curiously, while major music streaming companies including Spotify and Bandcamp report dips in usage during the pandemic, classical music streaming has seen a bump, along with folk and children’s music.
A report by the classical music streaming service Primephonic states that listeners’ habits have shifted away from early morning and evening listening to business hours. Listening during lunch hour has doubled, and countries that have been shut down the longest due to COVID-19 have seen up to a 50% increase in listening time.
“This music provides hope,” Primephonic CEO Thomas Steffens said in a phone call from the Netherlands.
He also said the rate of increase for new subscriptions is much higher than it was a month ago, even though Primephonic is marketing less.
“The increase is a mixture of people who already like classical listening more and new listeners trying out the genre, like how many people are now trying new recipes,” Mr. Steffens said.
Idagio, another classical music streaming service, also reports increased usage. Orchestras and opera houses around the country are streaming video performances and drawing millions of viewers. On Easter a week ago, Italian opera singer Andrea Bocelli sang a selection of hymns in an empty cathedral in Milan. By the next evening, the performance had garnered more than 30 million views on YouTube.
Noah Potvin, a board certified music therapist and professor at Duquesne University, said classical music’s cultural associations include relaxation and refinement and a certain health image, and this is likely driving listeners to the genre.
“Think of any Lexus or Mercedes commercial with soaring classical melodies,” he said. “That sense of security and peace is attractive right now.”
Mr. Potvin is skeptical of some of the research linking music with the immune system, questioning whether it’s healthy to use music or any other tool to suppress anxiety.
“The research is superficial, though I don’t mean that in a pejorative way,” he said. “I think the information we have is valuable, but we need to go deeper.”
Music therapists use music to treat acute anxiety and stress, but Mr. Potvin said a more valuable use is exploring how music can help listeners work through anxiety and stress instead of simply covering over such sensations, which can be counterproductive. Using music for progressive muscle relaxation is a common technique at the moment, he said.
Listening to music is not a cure-all. It’s another example of the much-discussed “mind-body connection” that has so captured the public consciousness in recent years, which deals with how emotional and mental health have physical outcomes.
“I’m a skeptic by nature, so when I first heard of the mind-body connection I thought it was new-age woo-woo,” Dr. Levin said. “However, the more I learned about human physiology, and in particular neurophysiology and neurology, I became increasingly convinced that we actually underestimate how profound this connection is.”