Research into the health benefits of music has rapidly expanded over the last decade.  But how much do we know about the connections between the psychological and biological effects of music?  Daisy Fancourt, in the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival, offered intriguing insights.  Alan Barker sang along.



Stephen Pinker famously described music as ‘auditory cheesecake’: a by-product of language, offering no evolutionary advantage whatsoever.  Tell that to the members of Sing With Us, the choir for people affected by cancer, who opened Daisy Fancourt’s Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture at this year’s British Science Festival.  As they sang ‘I will survive,’ they seemed to mean it.

 Most of us know intuitively that music’s good for us; but what’s the hard evidence?  Daisy is a Research Fellow in the Centre for Performance Science, a joint research group between Imperial College London and the Royal College of Music.  She’s looking at music’s effect on the immune system.

 Earlier theories posited that music did indeed have an evolutionary function.  Darwin suggested that it evolved to help attract a mate; anthropologist Dean Falk later suggested that it helped mothers to bond with their babies, born prematurely as their mother’s hip size decreased when humans stood upright. 



Daisy’s view doesn’t contradict these ideas.  She wants to know how social, psychological and biological effects interact, so that evolutionary theories can be supported by physical measurement.

 Two main biological pathways are involved.  The autonomic nervous system responds to stress by switching on the famous fight-or-flight response (mediated in part by adrenalin); ten minutes or so later, the endocrine HPA axis kicks in.  Three endocrine glands – hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal – work in sequence to release a cascade of hormones, including cortisol, infamous for its negative effects on health at high levels. 

Music disrupts both these pathways and lowers stress levels.  And the effects seem not to be affected by training, experience, or any other cultural specifics.  Something inherent in music is working the magic.

 Daisy has also been looking at the immune system’s response to infection – for thousands of years, human beings’ biggest killer.  Inflammation is our biological response; but we’ve also evolved behavioural responses, including tiredness and an urge to withdraw from the group, both of which may help to fight infection and stop its spread.  These psychological responses seem to have persisted even as our lives have become less infection-prone, so that now they can appear even when infection isn’t present.  As a result, depression is sometimes accompanied by an inflammatory response.



Inflammation is mediated by substances called cytokines: small proteins that act rather like messengers of the immune system.  Some cytokines promote inflammation and inhibit the immune system; others inhibit inflammation.  Daisy found that singing boosts levels of the anti-inflammatory ones.  And people with the biggest improvement in mood after singing also had the lowest levels of inflammation.  Drumming produced similar results, not just immediately afterwards, but weeks later.  The exciting implication is that music may help to reduce depression and boost the immune system, not just temporarily but long-term.

 The list of benefits goes on.  Music increases our pain threshold: put your hand in a bucket of iced water, and singing will help you keep it there longer.  (Go ahead, try it.)  The case becomes even more compelling when we consider music’s effect on neuropeptides like oxytocin and endorphins.  These substances are released when we make physical contact; Robin Dunbar has suggested that laughter and singing  - which also release these ‘feel-good’ chemicals – evolved to replace grooming as a way to develop social relationships in complex human groups. 

 But the picture’s complicated.  There’s no doubt of music’s social benefits; but Daisy has found that singing, unexpectedly, seems to decrease neuropeptide levels.  She thinks that her results may be missing the rebound effect; the biomarkers might increase at later times after the event.  Daisy’s working on it. 

 So the effects of music on the immune system are not simple; but they are, unquestionably, there.

These insights are already being translated into practical care.  People with mental health problems are being offered group drumming; Daisy is investigating the effectiveness of music therapy for post-natal depression.  She even wants to assess the effects of attending concerts on people’s health.  All of which can only be good news.  Any evidence showing that cultural activity might save our health services money must be welcome.


Alan Barker is a writer and training consultant specialising in communication skills.  He is Managing Director of Kairos Training Limited.