How Listening to Music Can Alter Your Genes

March 16, 2022

It’s no secret that music can have an impact on how our bodies operate. From releasing happy hormones and alleviating anxiety to boosting antibody levels in our immune system and improving learning and memory skills – music is an impressive and well documented tool. However recent research suggests musical exposure might be even more powerful than previously thought, altering the body at a genetic level.

Genes are made up of DNA strands, which are copied every time a cell divides.
Genes are made up of DNA strands, which are copied every time a cell divides. If the DNA is altered or compromised, genetic mutations can occur, causing abnormal cell behaviour.

Music and Cancer Cells

Cancers are caused by cells that have damaged genes – either through environmental exposures or naturally occurring mutations – which alter the function and regulation of controlled cell death (apoptosis). A 2019 study from Catholic University of the North in Chile tested culture-grown gastric cancer cells after being exposed to 12 hours of non-stop tunes to see if any changes in genetic activity occurred. 

The researchers played Beethoven for one group of cells and death metal for another. The results found that classical music caused the inhibition of p53, a key regulator for cell division and apoptosis, which meant that the cells were overall more cancerous –replicating at a more normal rate, but not dying. The opposite was true for metal music, where p53 was promoted and apoptosis was at a more normal rate. 

For another gene, PUMA, the opposite of these effects was found – where metal music caused inhibition and classical music caused promotion of controlled cell death. This suggests that the two genres were able to promote different genetic pathways to signal apoptosis and that both types of music were capable of altering the reproduction of cancerous cells. The death metal music, however, caused the cells to reproduce significantly more than the classical or control groups, producing 50% more viable cells than the control. 

Another study from 2015 found that listening to classical music has positive effects on non-cancerous cells. Researchers from the University of Helsinki tested blood cells of human participants, before and after listening to classical music. The findings suggested that music stimulated genes responsible for neurotransmitters – like those for mood regulation and memory – as well as glucocorticoid receptors, which are vital for the immune system in fighting inflammation. There are still a lot of unknowns within the field of epigenetics (meaning changes in genetic behaviour, rather than genetic code), but we’ve come a long way from thinking that gene expression is completely static.

What are the implications?

The concept of environmental exposures – or exposomes – affecting bodily function is not a novel one. These exposure effects are suspected to be a contributing cause of chronic illnesses, non-communicable diseases, cancer, and ageing. However, the intricacies of and interactions between different exposures is poorly understood. Most often, health research studies concern themselves with chemical or biological hazards, environmental pollution, and occupational risks, but it seems likely that exposomal activity can extend to far less obvious interactions, such as musical exposure. If scientists can understand how all of these exposures – both positively and negatively-impacting – affect human health, then we can harness this knowledge to create meaningful solutions to some of the most common causes of illness and death. 

Because both classical and metal music encouraged different pathways of apoptosis, it might suggest that with the right manipulation of sound, we could control how (and possibly to what degree) cancerous cells undergo apoptosis. More research is needed to determine the extent to which music can affect cancerous cells from living tissue, as the 2019 study was undertaken using lab-grown cells. But the 2015 study provides some plausibility to the idea. Thus, further research into this topic could take us closer to understanding cancer cells in humans and finding more effective (and less toxic) cancer therapies.

Knowing how different genres interact with cancerous cells will be key to utilising music therapy to promote physical health, on top of the better-understood mental health benefits. The differences found in cell death pathways could be explained by the varying frequencies used in the two genres of music. There are a few factors that combine to result in music sounding the way it does, such as pitch, volume, and tone, but all of these narrow down to soundwave frequency. 

Frequency is a measure of how many times a wave oscillates
Frequency is a measure of how many times a wave oscillates, in cycles per second, or Hertz (Hz). For sound waves this is perceived as musical pitch.

Metal music in the experiment was found to be between 2-6kHz, making a much more intense and higher-pitched sound, while the frequency of the classical music rarely exceeded 3kHz, which aligns with the more mellow instrumentation. 

Chemwatch is here to help

While the musical arts are not under our purview, we can assist with the management of your ongoing chemical exposures. Whether it’s chemical safety, storage, or regulations, we are here to help. At Chemwatch we have a range of experts spanning all chemical management fields, from heat mapping to Risk Assessment to chemical storage, eLearning and more. Contact us today to find out more at sales@chemwatch.net. 

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