Composer helps scientists measure the effect music has on our minds

PUBLISHED: 10:48 27 July 2015 | UPDATED: 12:48 27 July 2015

Eric Whitacre

Eric Whitacre

Marc Royce

We all know that music can change our mood, but now scientists are measuring the effect it has upon us. Grammy-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre explained all to Katie Jarvis ahead of his performance at the Cheltenham Music Festival.

Eric WhitacreEric Whitacre

Grammy-winning composer and conductor Eric Whitacre performed with the Eric Whitacre Singers in Gloucester Cathedral on July 7, as part of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival. For the audience, the experience was undoubtedly sublime… Exactly how sublime was measured by scientists - because the event is part of a unique on-going experiment to discover the effect live music has on us.

Eric, this is fascinating work being carried out by Imperial College and the Centre for Performing Science at London’s Royal College of Music. How and why did you get involved?

From my experience on the stage, I could feel the positive effect that music and singing have both on singers and concert-goers and couldn’t help but think that there are unlimited ways in which this could help people. I then met Daisy Fancourt from the Centre of Performance Science and we decided to prove it. I’m astonished that it’s taken this long – this is the first study of its kind to prove that attending a cultural event has a biological effect.

Of course, we feel emotions when listening to music. Do those emotions last beyond a concert?

I can only speak for myself but, yes, the emotions a concert produces last beyond the concert, whether I love it or the opposite. Music creates a response and that response can keep on evolving.

We can all sit at home and listen to recordings. Does this research suggest that live music has an additional effect on us?

This is one area that I think would benefit from further study. Intuitively, I say, ‘Yes!’ Let’s prove it!

Do you, as performers, feel the emotion of the audience, and is the opposite true?

Absolutely. This is one of the reasons that led me to get involved in the research. The effect is palpable.

What other further research would you like to see?

Previous research by the Centre for Performance Science has shown that reductions in stress hormone activity are linked with increases in immune function, including increases in cytokines and chemokines responsible for communicating between cells and within the brain. It would be such a feat to prove that attending cultural events can have similar benefits for immune response as well as reducing psychobiological stress, as shown by this study. I’d also like to test the results on different genres of music.

We’ve learned, relatively recently, of the positive effect of music on Alzheimer’s patients. There must be many more applications we are missing.

I would love this to help the case of music in the rehabilitation of patients post-surgery. This shows just one of the many ways in which music can help.

Does this research point the way to better government-funding of the arts? To the proof that music, while being acknowledged as an enriching experience, needs valuing more specifically and more intrinsically?

I’d love to see the arts given more government-funding, both in schools and elsewhere. Providing the scientific proof and hard-data can only help.

You’ve recently been in Mexico, composing. What effect do place, time, and people have on your own work and state of mind?

Place, time and people are everything to me. Being surrounded by my family is hugely important, but the space in which I’m working is fundamental to what I’m writing, too. I write using a pencil and manuscript paper, having mapped out a piece in my head first (and literally diagrammatically first, too); but much of the creative process is achieved while out walking or in everyday life. Writing isn’t something that happens to order, sadly! I develop a million ideas and throw away a ton of them, and have to live with them for a while before putting them to manuscript. There’s no doubt that, whether I’m on the streets of Mexico City or walking through Cambridge colleges or down the River Cam, that impacts massively. Most of all I need space - space and time.

As part of this year’s Cheltenham Music Festival, you and the Eric Whitacre Singers will be performing at Gloucester Cathedral. Tell us more.

I cannot wait to perform in Gloucester Cathedral. The festival’s director Meurig Bowen took me on a tour of this magnificent building last year, and I was inspired to put together a programme working with the light in the cathedral. The performance begins at dusk and will lead us through the dimming to darkness, which will be reflected in the music. And on top of that, I get to work not only with my choir – the Eric Whitacre Singers – but two British vocalists I hugely admire: Laura Mvula and Nicki Wells.


The Cheltenham Music Festival has finished for the year of 2015, but keep an eye on the website for details of the next one:

Latest from the Cotswold Life