Music amps immunity and cuts stress

MCGILL (CAN) — Before surgery, listening to music is more effective at reducing anxiety than prescription drugs, report researchers.

In a large-scale review of 400 research papers about the neurochemistry of music, researchers have shown that playing and listening to music has clear benefits for both mental and physical health.

In particular, music was found both to improve the body’s immune system function and to reduce levels of stress.


“We’ve found compelling evidence that musical interventions can play a health care role in settings ranging from operating rooms to family clinics,” says Professor Daniel J. Levitin of McGill University’s psychology department.

“But even more importantly, we were able to document the neurochemical mechanisms by which music has an effect in four domains: management of mood, stress, immunity, and as an aid to social bonding.”

The information gathered gathered by the researchers shows that music increased both immunoglobulin A, an antibody that plays a critical role in immunity of the mucous system, and natural killer cell counts (the cells that attack invading germs and bacteria).

As reported in Trends in Cognitive Sciences, Levitin and his postgraduate research fellow, Mona Lisa Chanda, also found that listening to and playing music reduces levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body.

The authors suggest a number of areas for future experiments in the field. These include:

  • uncovering the connection between oxytocin, the so-called “love drug,” group affiliation, and music,
  • administering the drug naltrexone—an opioid antagonist used during alcohol withdrawal—to uncover whether musical pleasure is promoted by the same chemical systems in the brain activated by other forms of pleasure such as food,
  • and experiments in which patients are randomly assigned to musical intervention or a rigorously matched control condition in post-operative or chronic pain trials. Suitable controls might include films, TV, comedy recordings, or audio books.

Finally, the authors lay out a framework for future research with questions such as:

  • What are the different effects, if any, of playing vs. listening to music?
  • Are some people more likely to experience positive effects of music than others? If so, what individual differences (e.g. personality traits, genetic, or biological factors) contribute to the effectiveness of music interventions?
  • What is the role of oxytocin in mediating musical experience?
  • What stimuli can be used as a basis of comparison to match music along dimensions of arousal, attractiveness or lack thereof, engagement, and mood induction?

The Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) funded the research.

Source: McGill University