Listening to your favorite music may have more health benefits than you realize. Here’s how songs can reduce stress and help you heal.
It’s not until we forget our headphones that we realize just how much we rely on music to help us through the day. Our favorite music seems capable of pumping us up before an important moment, calming us down when we’re upset, and just about anything in between.
But is there actually a scientific explanation for this? As it turns out, yes!
Music has been widely studied and revered throughout human history for its ability to both entertain and heal. Countless experts have investigated how listening to music can potentially have therapeutic effects on a range of mental and physical health conditions, or just as a way to cope with everyday life.
Contemporary research suggests music has significant power to help reduce stress and anxiety, relieve pain, and improve focus among many more benefits.
Stress — the feeling of emotional tension, overwhelm, or feeling unable to cope — affects us mentally and physically.
Stress has a biological impact that causes your body to release specific hormones and chemicals that activate your brain in certain ways. For example, when we are highly stressed, our heart rate and blood pressure can go up, and our adrenal gland begins producing cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.”
Short term, cortisol can help us find the focus and energy we need to deal with a difficult situation, but when the body is exposed to excess cortisol for a prolonged period of time, it causes perpetual, exhausting states of fight, flight, or freeze. Ongoing or chronic stress can lead to developing an anxiety disorder, depression, chronic pain, and more.
Across time and space, music has had tremendous success as a tool for stress relief. While some types of music such as classical and ambient have long been studied for their calming effects, listening to your personal favorite music of any genre also has benefits.
A 2020 overview of research into music and stress suggests that listening to music can:
As of 2019, the average hearing person across the world listened to 18 hours of music a week! This number is likely to be even higher in 2021.
So what is music actually doing to us during those hours we listen to it?
Well, here’s a super simple breakdown:
Most investigations into music’s health effects center on its ability to calm us down and relieve stress. In recent years, this research has expanded in exciting and surprising new directions.
Some recent findings include the following:
Meditation is an ancient tradition that is practiced in cultures all over the world and is an integral part of some religions and types of yoga. There are many types of mediation, and people use some types to help treat mental and physical health conditions.
Usually, meditation aims to focus, center, calm, or direct your attention. It can also help relax our bodies. So it can pair well with music for some people.
Often, music used for meditation has a slow tempo, which can reduce heart rate, and also lower anxiety and stress levels. Guided meditation involves music with a narrator or speaker that directs your energy flow and focus, or offers positive affirmations.
Interested in trying meditation? Check out these resources:
Music therapy is different from just listening to music, although listening is a big part of it!
Music therapists work with a variety of patients of all ages. Like other forms of therapy, including art therapy, music therapists plan individualized sessions to help you meet your goals.
Music therapy can include goal-oriented music listening, playing and composing music, and songwriting, among other activities. These kinds of “purposeful” interactions with music can help you work through emotions or issues that are bothering you, encourage positive feelings, and even assist with speech or physical therapy.
Research shows that music can help relieve both chronic pain and post-operative pain:
How does it work? Scientists
Music isn’t just limited to helping with physical pain. Stress causes emotional and psychological pain as well, which music can help alleviate.
Maybe you’ve found yourself searching for “study playlists” on Spotify or YouTube. Well, it turns out there’s a reason why millions of other people stream these playlists too!
Listening to music has been shown to improve focus on certain tasks, especially if the task is more complex. Music may also help sharpen our brain’s ability to recall information and make connections.
In one recent experiment, participants were asked to press a button anytime the hand on a special clock started moving. The authors found that when people listened to their preferred background music while doing this “low-demanding sustained-attention task,” their minds wandered less, and they were more focused, compared to those without music.
Anxiety, stress, and pain often hang out together. Music may be one way to help manage them and their troublemaking.
As some of the previously discussed research indicates, music can help reduce anxiety in both adults and children before and during medical procedures.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic parts of your central nervous system are involuntary or automatic, meaning they work without you having to think about them.
Doctors may refer to the parasympathetic side as “rest and digest,” since it takes care of things when the body is at rest, while sympathetic is “fight or flight,” in charge of the body in motion.
When we are thrown into a stressful situation, it’s hard to calm back down and stay grounded. Deep breathing is one way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to move back into “rest and digest.”
Certain genres of lyric-less music, like classical and ambient, are historically the subject of most research studies into music and stress. While there’s evidence that they can reduce stress and anxiety, that doesn’t mean they’re “better” than other genres of music.
For many of the studies mentioned in this article, music listening involved multiple genres or songs chosen by both the participants and the researchers. In fact, the American Music Therapy Association states that “All styles of music can be useful in effecting change in a client or patient’s life.”
We also use different kinds of music for different purposes. Since we all have special relationships with our favorite songs and genres, we can use those to invoke certain emotions and feelings unique to that relationship. For example:
Musicians, researchers, and music therapists have actually claimed to create “the most relaxing” song ever, called “Weightless.” But you’ll have to decide for yourself.
Listening to your favorite music has more benefits than you realize. It’s also safe, cost-effective, and widely available.
Music is certainly not a magical cure, nor is it a substitute for therapy, medication, surgery, or any other medical treatments. But music can be an important element of your well-being and self-care on a daily basis, as well as a helpful partner in dealing with more acute health conditions.
Music listening, therapy, and interventions have many benefits like:
Research into music’s healing and stress-relieving properties is ongoing and sometimes with mixed results. But ultimately, perhaps the most important takeaway is: keep listening!
Last medically reviewed on August 17, 2021