Skip to main content

Wind, Brass Instruments Linked to Airway Damage?

Aussie researchers find a new reason to take up the violin: Increased levels of exhaled nitric oxide have been found in wind and brass musicians.

For as supportive as my father was while I was growing up (coaching soccer, chauffeuring me to and from swim practice), he could never quite make it through an orchestral concert — comparing sounds of my elementary school ensemble to those of a dying cat.

Indeed, steely resolve helps if your child is learning to play a musical instrument. With luck and enough endurance, years of unending honking might bear fruit as a game-day fight song, a night onstage at Carnegie Hall, or, in my case, the sonorous silence of music journalism.

I thought I had heard the end of his disparagement when the rhythmic thuds of nails drove through the coffin of my short-lived music career, but along comes a study published in the journal of Music and Medicine that suggests an irksome truth: Father knows best.

Following research published in 1969, three Australian scientists, Anita Fuhrmann, Graham Hall and Peter Franklin, examined the relationship between playing a woodwind or brass instrument and long-term airway damage.

Researchers tested levels of exhaled nitric oxide, an indicator of airway inflammation and bronchial cell damage, in 83 nonsmoking, non-asthmatic subjects between the ages of 18 and 60. Forty-two participants were either nonmusicians or musicians who did not play a woodwind and brass instrument. The remaining participants were wind and brass players who practiced more than five hours a week and who had played for more than two years.

Subjects completed a respiratory health questionnaire and were documented on factors that affected nitric oxide levels, like allergic hypersensitivity, height, weight and gender. They were then asked to blow into a machine that measured for levels of exhaled nitric oxide.

Further analysis was taken on wind and brass musicians that measured levels of nitric oxide as it related to a given instrument. The researchers presumed that musicians who play instruments that require more stress on an airway, like the trumpet, would exhibit higher levels of nitric oxide over those who play low-impact instruments, like my ax, the saxophone.

While the team observed higher levels of nitric oxide in wind and brass musicians over those of the control group, they did not detect differences among the players themselves. The researchers concluded that occupation was therefore a determining factor in the amount of exhaled nitric oxide observed in musicians, but not necessarily a factor in long-term airway damage.

Remaining steadfast to their dismal hypothesis, however, the team made a few concessions about the methods in which they came to their findings — claiming that the study was too broad and that the number of participants was too few to draw definitive conclusions on the relationship between nitric oxide and airway inflammation. The results, they say, could have been the product of something that they couldn’t control during the experiment.

Given the ominous tone, I’m sure the future assumption of woodwind or brass instruments will certainly be something to hammer out.