Caught the COVID-19 Blues?

Research shows that music can provide a medicinal antidote to our emotional ailments
April 20, 2020 Updated: April 20, 2020

English acoustic-physics pioneer, John Stuart Reid, explains how music medicine can banish the blues (and fear) associated with COVID-19 while boosting our immune system to help vanquish any pathogen.

It’s natural to have low spirits (the blues) and to feel fear when we sense that our security or way of life may be threatened.

Fear is nature’s way of urging us to take action and, fortunately, nature has evolved a clever system that engages automatically within us to help save us from threats. There’s just one little stumbling block: The system was designed for acute fear. Nature, it seems, didn’t anticipate chronic fear.

The COVID-19 situation is not the stereotypical saber-tooth tiger from which we can quickly run and hide. We also can’t protect ourselves from the associated socio-economic repercussions.

And while watching or reading the news keeps us informed of the worldwide crisis, it is also likely to keep us in fear of the invisible viral threat, day after day, week after week. Such chronic fear is potentially harmful because it weakens our immune system (aside from many other bodily harms), rendering us less able to vanquish viruses or other pathogens. Fortunately, there is a simple antidote that uses another of nature’s clever systems. This antidote banishes low spirits, eases fear, and boosts our immune system. It’s drug-free, has no known side effects, and can’t be overdosed.

By way of introducing this magical antidote, it’s important to know that the natural human state of fear causes the release of cortisol from the adrenal glands. Cortisol is sometimes called the “stress hormone” because it helps prepare our body for dealing with stressful situations, such as providing extra glucose by tapping into protein stores via gluconeogenesis in the liver. Unfortunately, though, cortisol also suppresses our immune system and other bodily systems considered by nature to be “nonessential” in the short term. By short term, I mean that when running from the proverbial saber-tooth tiger there probably isn’t much chance of being invaded by a harmful microscopic organism. Yet, our immune system is our defense against viruses and other pathogens, so its suppression due to feelings of fear should not be ignored, especially if we have an underlying health condition.

The magical antidote that nature provided for us is music. Not just any music, but music that calms us and brings us joy. Nature’s “music” for our ancient ancestors was provided in a variety of ways, such as psithurism (the sound of the wind in the trees and rustling leaves), the sound of birdsong, bees, or tinkling streams, and the sound of our own humming or singing.

Music plays a large part in the human experience, and its basic components—sound and rhythm—have always been present on earth, in wind, and waves, bird calls and endless other forms.

Around 40,000 years ago, humans fashioned flutes made from bird bones and mammoth ivory.

There are many ways to help calm our nerves such as exercise, deep breathing, meditation, all forms of creativity, and dancing. Yet, one of the most powerful antidotes to stress and fear in which we can all engage is listening to our favorite music, or if we are a musician or vocalist, making it ourselves.

And nowhere was this message carried better than from the streets of Italy. Quoting from the United Kingdom’s Classic FM website, posted on March 16: “You can’t quarantine music … Italy plays and sings from balconies in locked-down cities. Since the country was completely quarantined following the coronavirus outbreak … musicians, singers, and music lovers share beautiful performances from their balconies.”

Our favorite music has the ability to lift our spirits and can even evoke a happy memory of a time, place, or event in our lives that can instantly transform our mood, calm us, and move our mind (and therefore our body) into a sense of joy.

In that joyful state, our brain and enteric nervous system (sometimes called “the second brain”) produces dopamine, which boosts our immune system. At the same time, our favorite music can naturally cause a reduction in cortisol levels. Joy also triggers the pituitary gland in the brain to release endorphins into our bloodstream, hormones that provide a sense of euphoria while suppressing pain.

Listening to our favorite music throughout the day, even while engaging in mundane activities such as cleaning house, is one of the best ways to reduce our stress levels and give our immune system a boost.

This simple formula summarizes the music medicine effect:

Music + Joy = Immune System Boost

Stated simply, viruses and other pathogens can be more efficiently eradicated from our body when we move out of fear and into joy.

But there is more good news because the recent research project in which I collaborated with professor Sungchul Ji of Rutgers University, along with GreenMedInfo.com and the RoadMusic company, showed that red blood cells that are beginning to lose outer membrane integrity due to their age receive a lifespan extension when they are immersed in music for at least 20 minutes.

Interestingly, we found that the best results were obtained not with classical music, as we had imagined, but with popular music that contained a prominent bass beat. While more research is needed to identify the biological mechanism that underpins this effect, our preliminary hypothesis is that the rich low frequencies in music, whether popular or classical, produce pressure pulses that increase the oxygen available to hemoglobin molecules in red blood cells, effectively mimicking the pressure pulses of heartbeats.

This mechanical pressure, whether created by a heartbeat or by externally generated pressure pulses from music, causes the hemoglobin molecules to uptake the oxygen dissolved in our blood. Drumming music, too, produced excellent results, presumably for the same reason, helping to increase blood oxygen. When more oxygen is available to “old” red blood cells, the mechanism may involve regeneration of the proteins in their outer membranes, giving them a new lease of life.

Red blood cells carry oxygen to all systems of the body and are essential to the immune system, so this important connection between music and blood health could prove to be an effective “medicine” of the future.

Another important connection between music and the immune system was reported in a 2019 study by Augusta University. Researchers found that when mice were subjected to low-frequency sound vibrations, macrophages in their bloodstream proliferated significantly. 

Macrophages are the largest type of T-cell that engulf viruses and other types of pathogen. Although this effect hasn’t yet been proven advantageous for humans, it seems likely that our blood will respond in a similar way, particularly since our blood experiments demonstrated the positive effect of low frequencies on red blood cells in human blood.

In summary, there are many ways to calm our nerves and become joyful, but perhaps none carry the universal appeal of listening to music.

Our favorite music has the almost magical ability to calm frazzled nerves, transport us in our imagination to special places and times, and banish the blues, while boosting our immune system, helping to vanquish viruses and other pathogens. In the words of Plato, “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and life to everything.”

To learn more about the potential therapeutic benefits that come from listening to your favorite music, visit the GreenMedInfo database on the subject.

John Stuart Reid is an English acoustic-physics researcher and inventor of the CymaScope, an instrument that makes sound visible. He has studied the world of sound for over 40 years and is one of only two men to conduct an acoustics study of the Great Pyramid. He lectures at conferences in Europe and the USA. This article was republished from GreenMedinfo. Sign up for the newsletter.