A closer look into the effects of music on a cellular level

by Various Writers

Music provides a variety of different physical, mental, social, and spiritual benefits, with applications ranging from stroke rehabilitation to early childhood education. Although clinicians, caregivers, and researchers report the positive effects of music in terms of “what” they see on a personal level, we are often left without a deeper understanding into exactly “how” music affects us on a cellular level. Here, we will take a closer look into some novel effects of music on a microscopic level and how these findings may be important for future cancer treatment research.
For the longest time, it was thought that music affected the human body mainly through sound by travelling through our ears and into our brains to evoke some sort of feeling or emotion. In this case, music would directly interact with cells within our inner ears that are responsible for detecting the vibrations in the air caused by different sounds. However, research has now shown music does not exclusively affect just auditory cells, but non-auditory cells as well.

In a study by Lestard et al., they proved that breast cancer cells were able to exhibit a response to music. Specifically, when these cells were grown while exposed to music, it was shown that music actually increased cell death and decreased cell growth. Upon further investigation, it was revealed that the protein p53, which is in charge of cell death and growth, was increased in all music conditions compared to that of the silent control conditions.

From there, the study also looked into the effects of three different musical pieces in Mozart's Sonata for Two Pianos in D major, KV. 448, Beethoven's 5th Symphony, or Ligeti's Atmospheres on the same cellular effects shown previously. Although all three types of music showed decrease in cell growth and increase in cell death compared to the silent control groups, they actually showed different rates in comparison with one another.
Finally, after showing the effects of music on cells and the effects different types of music may have, they wanted to show the effects of music on different types of cells. Using a different type of breast cancer cells, they repeated the experiments and found that music affected not just cell death and growth differently, but also the ability of these cells to migrate and move.

Thus, these main three findings suggest that music can affect non-auditory cells through different mechanisms than originally thought. Specifically, breast cancer cells show increased death and decreased growth in general when exposed to music, with these effects being dependant on the type of cell and/or music used.
Although it was not tested for in the study, it would have been interesting to see the effects of music in normal breast cell lines or other types of cell lines to see if these effects were solely cancer specific or breast cell specific. This becomes important because if it is shown that normal breast cells do not show the same pro-death and anti-growth effects from music shown in breast cancer cells, then we may be suggesting music to have possible anti-cancer growth effects.

Overall, these findings may provide a framework for future research exploring the role of music on the cellular level and its possible implications in disease treatment and prevention. This becomes important not just for a better overall understanding of the way music works within our bodies, but also with regards to building concrete evidence to support the practical applications of music in care.

Cimon Song is a fourth year Bachelor of Health Sciences student at McMaster University. He wrote this blog while completing HTH SCI 4W03 at the Room 217 Foundation.