One of the most common ways of enjoying music is to attend a concert. Music festivals alone attract over 32 million visitors in the US every year. Live performances are estimated to account for up to a staggering 70% of total revenue in the music industry, with this share only expected to grow in the future.
Why are music concerts so appealing? Well, for one, it can be argued that live performance is probably the way that music has been experienced for most of its existence during human history – as a specific mode of social interaction and communication between the performer and the listener.
Another important reason for the appeal may be the interaction that takes place between the members of the audience. The experience of shared context, shared emotions and shared rhythm can serve to amplify the enjoyment derived from music listening.
Some researchers propose that the synchronization that emerges between the audience members is actually one of the reasons that music has come to existence in the first place. During human evolution, the beat in music may have helped humans bond through synchronization of movement and emotion. Therefore, it can be that music has enabled better cooperation between individuals, and through that ultimately the survival of the whole species.
In addition to synchronization and better cooperation, it seems that enjoying music together with others may have additional benefits. Previous research has found that music listening can be a powerful way to decrease stress, and that the effects of music listening can be seen on the level of stress-related hormonal changes, as well as on the decrease of blood pressure and heart rate.
Studies investigating the effects of music listening on stress are typically carried out in controlled lab environments. This is important for being able to control for factors that might influence the results, but it ultimately inhibits the investigation of phenomena like concert attendance, and decreases the generalization of results found to "real life" experience. Researchers have started to recognize the limitations of controlled experiments within lab settings, and the importance of conducting studies in real life settings comes up frequently in scientific discussion.
Recently, a research group decided to take this brave leap out of the lab. They set out to investigate whether attending a live music concert would have the same type of impact on stress-related physiology as solitary music listening does.
The study recruited 117 participants from among attendees of concerts with music by composer Eric Whitacre. To help deal with the problems of investigating stress physiology in real life situations, the researchers obtained their measurements in two separate concerts with the same set list. If only the attendees of one concert showed effects, the results could be related to the specifics of just that one concert. But, if indeed both concerts showed the same effects, it would be more likely that music, the common element connecting the two concerts, would explain the observed effects.
Before the concert, the participants provided the researchers with a saliva sample, and a second sample was collected after 60 minutes from the start of the concert. The samples were then analyzed to see differences in amounts of hormones such as cortisol, cortisone, and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) between the start and 60 minutes into the concert.
Cortisol and cortisone are hormones that are released by the body during the stress response – they function to increase blood sugar and suppress immune function so that energy is available to muscles in a stressful situation. DHEA is a hormone that in turn works to enhance the functioning of the immune system – perhaps to counter the effects of cortisol on the immune system. The presence of higher amounts of cortisol, cortisone, and DHEA therefore indicate higher stress levels in an individual.
According to the results, there was a significant drop in the amount of cortisol and cortisone between the start and 60 minutes into the concert, but no statistically significant change in DHEA in individuals attending both concerts. The researchers propose that an increase in DHEA was not seen due to a short follow-up period of only one hour. It therefore is possible that DHEA kicks in at later times. In short, this means that concert attendance served as stress relief, but the long-term effects, for example on DHEA and consequent immune system boost, still need to be investigated.
The results of the study are significant in many ways. For one, they show that the effect of music listening on stress that is seen in controlled lab environments can also be seen in real life settings. The stress-relieving effects of music are therefore not limited to solitary listening, but also work in group settings. It can even be that the social concert setting itself provides an additional boost to stress relief, but further investigation will have to be conducted to tease apart the factors that make concerts a great stress remedy.
For another, the results show that investigation of the effects of music on health in real-life concert settings is possible. This is an important new step in the research on music listening. To fully understand, and also make use of, the multitude of ways in which music can support human well being, we need to take scientific discovery to the very situations in which the interactions with music take place.
WRITTEN BY KETKI KARANAM
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Fancourt, D., & Williamon, A. (2016). Attending a concert reduces glucocorticoids, progesterone and the cortisol/DHEA ratio. Public Health, 132, 101–104. doi:10.1016/j.puhe.2015.12.005
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