Wednesday 20 January 2016, 11:36 | By

Music is the strongest social tool that mankind has invented

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In a recent CSL News article, we looked at a pioneering program in Sweden, now being trialled in the UK, that streams music for free into homes for older adults.
Designed to create a more stimulating, healing environment, the program is based on the fascinating research carried out by Tores Theorell, professor emeritus at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm.
CSL are very pleased to say that Professor Theorell has kindly agreed to share key findings from his research, revealing the amazing power of music to positively affect our body and mind as we age.
Over to Professor Theorell…

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That music has strong power is well-known to many people. However, the power turns out to be stronger than I believed before I started scientific studies of the psychological and physiological effects of music.

Effects on hormones, immune system, cardiovascular functions and gastrointestinal activity can be surprisingly strong although effects vary markedly between individuals. Music has an unpredictable power that is able to amplify and also induce all kinds of emotional states. It can accelerate and decelerate. But there are no simplistic answers to questions about the relationship between music and health. Music can provide joy and improve health for elderly people but the musical experiences should be appropriate for the person and the situation. We need research in order to find out also when music is causing damage!

I grew up in a musical family devoted to classical music and I have also been involved in playing and singing classical music all of my life. But I am convinced that all high quality music regardless of genre can be used for health promotion in the elderly. The research I have been doing in this field is of course influenced by the fact that I am a physician.

Listening to music is a social activity – even when passive listening takes place in solitude. One ‘communicates’ with those who produced the music. Very often it is about being identified with a group or a cultural environment. The American jazz musician William Benzon expressed it in the following way: “Music is the strongest social tool that mankind has invented for coupling brains to one another”. The pituitary hormone oxytocin seems to be a vehicle for this. Basic research has indicated that oxytocin is a ‘togetherness hormone’.

Our research group has shown that the oxytocin concentration in blood increases during a singing lesson and the German music researcher Günter Kreutzhas shown that the oxytocin release increases in choir singers when they have a choir rehearsal but not when they talk to one another (without singing) in groups. Other research has shown that this knowledge about oxytocin can be used in major surgery: A Swedish nurse researcher, Ulrica Nilsson, has performed a randomised trial showing that patients who wake up from open heart surgery show increasing oxytocin concentration in blood when they listen to music individually selected for their benefit (selection performed before surgery!). In the comparison group waking up after open heart surgery in silence the oxytocin levels decreased! Since oxytocin reduces pain and anxiety this is of course of great potential importance!

Other areas of particular importance for elderly people is that rhythmic music which fits the individual well can facilitate walking for people with Parkinsonism. Singing can also facilitate the care of patients with dementia in situations that are otherwise difficult to handle for the staff because the patient is disoriented and unable to understand when it is time for cleaning and eating for instance. Instead of cooperating the patient is aggressive. When the staff sing songs that are well-known for the patient he/she might sing with the staff.

Often the patient knows the words and the music better than the staff and when he/she sings the disoriented mood disappears and then he/she cooperates. In both these examples the underlying reason why music can do things that talking cannot do is that degenerative brain diseases (both Parkinsonism and dementia are examples of such diseases although they hit different areas of the brain) cause damage to the linkage between brain areas. There are several ‘islands’ of intact memories but due to the disease the islands cannot be reached in the usual (talking) way. But the impulses from the music experiences reach the brain via other routes than talking.

One convincing study has been published in the USA on the health effects of choir singing for elderly people. This was a randomised study. Elders who wanted to start singing in a choir were randomised into two groups, one starting to sing once a week for two years, the other one having to wait. It was shown that health developed in a better way in the singing than in the other group.

Reasons for this might be:

Going to the choir once a week with all the social activity around it increases willingness to live; one has stronger motivation to care for one’s own health.

Singing training means physical activity. Large muscles are being trained just as in some kinds of physical activity.

Training of abdominal breathing (which is important in singing) improves the collaboration between circulation and breathing and it also stimulates deep slow breathing which is a stimulus to the vagus nerve mediating anti-stress processes. This is likely to be used outside the singing situation.

Aesthetic experiences may stimulate new thoughts and increased understanding of life.

The weekly singing exercises have effects on hormonal effects that may stimulate regeneration in the body. In a study of subjects with irritable bowel syndrome we randomly allocated those willing to start choir singing either to singing group or to talk group. In both groups they met once a week for a year. During the first half-year we observed increased concentration of such a hormone in the singing group but not in the other group. In addition we saw during the whole study year a more favourable development of the blood concentration of fibrinogen in the choir group than in the other group. Fibrinogen is related to the immune and coagulation systems and is known to be sensitive to stress. The fact that the choir group’s fibrinogen developed more favourably than the other group’s speaks in favour of an anti-stress effect of regular choir singing.

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So there you have it. The power of music is clearly much greater than most people would believe – it can help us physically, mentally and societally; whatever our stage in life or health. And thanks to the work of people like Professor Theorell and the pioneering programs putting it into practice, more lives can fuller and healthier in a way that is both non-invasive and personal to us.

If you haven’t already, be sure to follow CSL on twitter as we continue to find and share stories such as Professor Theorell’s.

Find his full study: Psychological Health Effects of Musical Experiences. Springer Brief Books 2014 here.