As you read this, more than 70,000 people are in a field in Stradbally, Co. Laois. What on earth could be causing such a large crowd to gather, throw caution to the wind and from what I’ve seen so far have the time of their lives? Music. Electric Picnic is back this weekend and it’s been the best so far.
ven I need to play some music. I’m in a band called The Metabollix and we played on the Leviathan stage. A thrill for many doctors and scientists, but we love music and have often turned to it during difficult times, not least during the pandemic. We firmly believe that music is the best medicine.
I also had the opportunity to do some science at the Human Lab sponsored by Science Foundation Ireland where we had all kinds of science based fun including discussing the highly relevant topic of science of a hangover and having a session with the Title Going Viral and Locked (Down): Future Pandemics.
All of this gives me an opportunity to tell you what science has to say about music and to update you with a very timely study on how great it is for us.
Scientists have long wondered what the point of playing or listening to music is. I mean, at first glance it doesn’t seem to do very much. It’s not like other traits we’ve developed, like hand-eye coordination, that help us hunt – which we used to do but don’t need anymore.
However, the love of music is one of the traits that defines us as human beings. Other animals like music, as any dog owner will tell you, but we especially love and enjoy it.
As far as we know, we are the only species that makes musical instruments. The oldest found so far dates back 60,000 years.
It was discovered in the Divje Babe cave near Cerkno in Slovenia and was made from the femur of a young bear. There are four holes in it. Experts say the holes can’t be accidental – they must have been made with the intention of making a musical instrument. So we and the music go way back.
But what could music be good for? Mind you, this question reminds me of what trumpeter Louis Armstrong once said when asked what jazz was: “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”
One reason is social, and it’s particularly evident here at Electric Picnic. Music brings us together. We are a social species and music helps with that. There is always strength in numbers. Music can make a crowd a community.
It’s great to hear a crowd cheering at a sporting event The Fields of Athenry. It is also no coincidence that marching bands are used by armies to boost soldiers’ morale.
What about music festivals? Going to one can be a much more immersive experience than listening to music alone. Studies have shown that a crowd listening to music synchronizes their heartbeats.
It also causes your body to produce a hormone called oxytocin, which is known as the “bonding hormone.” Mothers get a rush of oxytocin when breastfeeding. But you don’t have to breastfeed — just go to a music festival like Electric Picnic.
Study after study has shown that music can bring relief to people suffering from anxiety or depression.
Listening to music can also help your immune system. Music increases production of an important antibody called IgA, which is made on the inner surfaces of your body and can protect your upper respiratory and digestive systems from infection.
Music also increases the number of a type of cell called natural killer cells in your blood. This cell type is very good at killing viruses. In these still Covid times (sorry), these benefits are more important than ever.
Electric Picnic did not take place last year, but if it had, it could have strengthened the immunity of the participants. I have no qualms about seeing thousands of people all enjoying the music here together. In my mind’s eye I could see a wall of immunity built up thanks to vaccines and also infection from the virus.
We were lucky to have Omicron and his siblings join us last winter as they cause milder diseases while still providing protection. Great praise also goes to our young people, who turned up in droves for vaccinations. I have very fond memories of the long queues in front of vaccination centers when those over 18 were called to get their vaccinations. You made your own decision that it was the right thing to do.
Looking at the crowd here in Stradbally, I was more concerned that they might get wet in the rain. But I avoided saying to anyone, “You will meet your death.” Not what you want to hear at a music festival.
But what about recent science? Well, a study just showed that there is a link between learning to play a musical instrument in youth and improving thinking skills in old age.
I suspect that many of the people who enjoy music here have learned how to play a musical instrument at some point. Some might have resented being sent to those piano lessons or having to learn the recorder at school, but you know what? People with more experience playing a musical instrument showed greater lifetime improvement on a cognitive ability test than people with little or no experience.
Of the 366 study participants, 117 reported some experience of playing a musical instrument, mostly in childhood and adolescence. The most commonly played instrument was the piano, but many other instruments were performed including the accordion, bagpipes, guitar and violin.
Ah, the variety of music. This reminds me of the quote about what makes someone musical. A musical person is someone who can play the bagpipes but chooses not to.
Study participants were tested on a range of mental functions as they got older, including questions requiring verbal reasoning, spatial awareness and arithmetic. The striking finding was that playing an instrument in adolescence is associated with cognitive benefits throughout life.
This was an association, but since we know that learning or making music means having to concentrate, it probably helped brain development in a positive way. This, in turn, helped set processes in the brain that made people think better later in life.
And it’s not too late. There are benefits to learning an instrument at any point in life. So go ahead, play the piano if you’ve got one.
So music is consistently positive for us. And nowhere was that clearer than here in Stradbally. Go on.
Luke O’Neill is Professor of Biochemistry in the Department of Biochemistry and Immunology at Trinity College Dublin
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/science-proves-that-music-really-is-the-best-medicine-41959662.html Science proves that music really is the best medicine