Muzak to My Ears
Auditory Stimuli May Affect Immune System
By Marc Iskowitz
Trying to ward off a late summer cold or treat one you've already got? You don't have to pop a pill from a bottle. A ride in an elevator may do the trick.
Listening to Muzak may hold the key for preventing and fighting colds, according to the study findings of researchers at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, PA. They investigated the effects of relaxing music on the immune system and other presentations of auditory stimuli.
Their recently presented paper, titled "Effect of Music on Secretory Immunoglobulin A (IgA)," suggests that certain auditory stimuli may affect the level of IgA, a protein that serves as a first line of defense against upper respiratory microbial infections and as a marker for general immunocompetence.
The researchers detected significant increases in IgA in subjects who heard a 30-minute Muzak recording of "smooth jazz," less of an increase in those who listened to a radio station broadcast of similar music, a slight decrease in IgA levels among individuals during a period of silence, and a large decrease following a tone/click presentation.
The investigators were university faculty members Carl J. Charnetski, PhD, professor of psychology, and Francis X. Brennan, Jr., PhD, assistant professor of psychology, and James F. Harrison, PhD, senior vice president of marketing and sales at Muzak Ltd., in Seattle, WA, which funded the research. They presented their paper earlier this year at the Eastern Psychological Association Convention in Washington, DC.
Sixty-six undergraduates at the university served as subjects. They were randomly assigned to one of four different auditory stimuli conditions: a Muzak tape called Environmental Music, a radio broadcast of music comparable to the Muzak tape, a tone/click presentation, and a control condition of silence.
Researchers collected saliva samples from each subject prior to and immediately after each 30-minute condition exposure, using radial immunodiffusion to assay levels of IgA, which binds to substances that the body recognizes as foreign to block the microbes from crossing mucosa and entering the body.
IgA levels increased 14.1 percent in the Muzak group and 7.2 percent in the radio broadcast group. Students who heard the tone/click presentation showed a 19.7 percent decrease in salivary IgA, and those in the control group exhibited a 1 percent drop.
The occurrence of double the salivary IgA in the Muzak group compared to the radio broadcast listeners makes sense, said Dr. Brennan, because the radio broadcast included commercials, traffic reports and typical radio interruptions.
"If music has an effect on the immune system, then music that's interrupted all the time should not have as much of an effect but should do something," he explained.
The decrease in salivary IgA associated with the tone/click group was not surprising either, he said. Literature documents that certain annoying noises can act as chemical stressors on the body; and a number of investigations over the last 15 years have shown that negative life events, such as stress and depression, can impair immunocompetence.
"Comparatively, there are less data looking at the other side," said Dr. Brennan. "Could positive events like relaxing music potentially improve immune function?"
The results from the present study offer a possible answer. Given the negative correlation between IgA and colds, he said, "Listening to relaxing music may actually improve your resistance to colds and improve recovery, although we haven't tested that yet."
The investigators are trying to determine why this occurs.
"We don't know," Dr. Brennan told ADVANCE, although he speculated that "Muzak may improve people's mood. There are data showing positive physiological changes associated with improving mood."
Muzak may trigger a neurophysiological effect or alter neuronal firing patterns in the brain, which effect a change in the body.
The psychologist also suspects the immunological benefits of Muzak could stem from its relaxing effect on listeners. If this is the case, then rock music may not generate an increase.
In 1989, Dr. Charnetski reported that a simple harmonic progression of notes increased IgA levels when played in major mode but not in minor mode.
Future studies at Wilkes University will explore different types of music to see if this phenomenon spans musical genres. The researchers also will study time course of the IgA response by assaying subjects at multiple intervals following exposure to auditory stimuli.
* For more information, contact Francis X. Brennan, Jr., PhD, or Carl J. Charnetski, PhD, Department of Psychology, Wilkes University, P.O. Box 111, Wilkes-Barre, PA 18766; (717) 831-4566.