Microbes in the music

A new study finds germs linger on musical instruments

Streptococcus bacteria, pictured here, can linger on musical instruments for days, researchers recently found.
Streptococcus bacteria, pictured here, can linger on musical instruments for days, researchers recently found.

If you let someone play your instrument, you’re sharing more than music.

A new study found that tiny organisms — including those that cause disease — can live on musical instruments long after the music stops. Biologists from Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston took a close look at 20 flutes, clarinets and saxophones that had been recently played. The scientists searched for different kinds of bacteria, a type of germ, found in the human mouth. Many kinds of germs live in your mouth and don’t cause problems. But some germs make their way into your mouth and cause infections such as strep throat.

The study showed that common germs can persist for up to three days in clarinets and saxophones. These microbes also live in flutes, but not as long.

Stuart Levy, a doctor and microbiologist at Tufts, led the study and worked with his colleague, Bonnie Marshall. Microbiologists study tiny organisms, like bacteria, that are usually invisible without the use of a microscope.

Levy and Marshall did another experiment, approaching the same idea from a different direction. First, they collected several disease-causing germs, including streptococcus and staphylococcus. Under a microscope, streptococcus bacteria look like a string of beads; staphylococcus bacteria look like a bunch of grapes. Streptococcus bacteria cause strep throat and other serious diseases; some food poisoning is caused by staphylococcus bacteria.

The scientists then put those germs on reeds, which are used to make music on woodwinds like clarinets and saxophones. (Flutes don’t need reeds because the whole instrument functions as a reed.) The germs lived on the reeds for days. That means that even if an instrument hasn’t been played in a while, it may still contain germs of the last person to play a tune. The new results suggest that musicians who share instruments may spread infections and put themselves at higher risk for illness.

Owen Hendley told Science News that the new study agrees with past studies that showed disease-causing bacteria are hardy creatures able to live for days on different surfaces. Hendley is a pediatrician, or a doctor whose patients are children, at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in Charlottesville. Even though the germs persisted, Hendley said, the new study didn’t show that playing someone else’s instrument would automatically make you sick. More experiments would be needed to demonstrate that connection.

Of course, while you’re waiting for more experiments, you can use common sense. Levy says one possible solution will keep an orchestra as healthy as possible: Clean your instrument immediately after use, especially if it has a reed.

POWER WORDS (Adapted from the New Oxford American Dictionary)

microbe A microorganism, especially a bacterium.

streptococcus A bacterium of a genus that includes the germs that lead to souring of milk and dental decay, and germs that cause various infections such as strep throat, scarlet fever and pneumonia.

staphylococcus A bacterium of a genus that includes germs that cause pus formation, especially in the skin and mucous membranes.

genus A group of organisms that have common characteristics.

bacteria A large group of single-celled organisms that can live almost anywhere, including inside the human body.

microbiology The branch of science that deals with microorganisms, or tiny living things.

This story and other Science News for Kids features describing research in medicine and biology are supported with funding from The Lasker Foundation. The foundation and its programs are dedicated to the support of biomedical research toward conquering disease, improving human health and extending life.

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