In a world first, listening to and performing music has been shown to have a positive, biological effect on mood and stress levels, according to research by the Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science.

The study, carried out among a group of volunteers at a concert of music by Eric Whitacre at Union Chapel in March 2015, involved 15 singers and 49 audience members - ranging from seasoned concert-goers and musicians to classical music novices - who submitted saliva samples, wore ECG monitors and completed a questionnaire.

Findings revealed that audience members experienced decreases in levels of stress hormones cortisol and cortisone. Singing also had a profound biological effect, reducing stress hormones in the body and relaxing the performers in rehearsal, whilst raising levels during performance.

Aaron Williamon, Professor of Performance Science at Royal College of Music said: “This is the first time participation in a cultural event has been shown to have significant psychobiological effects, and the implications are hugely exciting, particularly when taking into account previous research by the Centre for Performance Science which links reduction in stress hormone activity with increases in immune function. This preliminary study provides several new avenues of further investigation of how making and experiencing music can impact on health and wellbeing.”

Eric Whitacre, Composer, says: “Singing is something that many people inherently feel is good for them and relaxes them. But to actually show biologically (and demonstrate scientifically) that it can reduce stress is very exciting. The Royal College of Music team we have been working with has also been collecting extraordinary data working with Tenovus Choirs, seeing measurable benefits in singing among cancer patients, for example. Reducing stress has a direct benefit not only in general terms in our home lives and the workplace, but also in pain reduction, recuperation and even the advancement of some diseases. It’s great to have another opportunity run new experiments at a concert as part of Cheltenham Music Festival, and to discuss these studies on 11 July with the scientists as one of the closing events of the Festival.”

The study will be replicated at a concert of music by Eric Whitacre at Cheltenham Festival on 7 July, before a talk discussing the findings of both studies on 11 July called ‘Is Singing Good for you’.

In the long term, this research will be extended to explore further the psychological and biological impact of singing and its potential for supporting health and wellbeing.

The Royal College of Music’s Centre for Performance Science was founded in 2000 as an innovative, world-leading institute for scientific research into musical performance. Its position at the heart of one of the UK’s most prestigious conservatoires (the RCM recently topped The Guardian’s 2016 league table for music education and is about to embark upon a transformative £25 million development project) allows the CPS to focus on applied research aimed primarily at benefiting music performance students. Among such projects is their Performance Simulator, which uses virtual reality to create realistic performance environments – complete with interactive audience, jurors or examiners – and has been hitting headlines recently in recognition of its potential in wider fields like public speaking, as well as musical performance.

Summary of psychobiological results:

  • Watching a concert as an audience member led to a decrease in stress hormones (cortisol, cortisone and the cortisol-DHEA ratio)
  • Watching a concert also led to decreases in negative mood states (afraid, tense, confused, sad, anxious and stressed) and increases in positive mood states (relaxed and connected)
  • Singing in a low-stress rehearsal reduced levels of stress hormones (cortisol and cortisone) and didn’t affect psychological anxiety, but singing in a high-stress concert increased stress hormone levels and psychological anxiety
  • The overall act of singing reduced the cortisol-cortisone ratio, suggesting that singing has an inherently relaxing effect regardless of how stressed people feel.

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