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23 Jan 2024

The power of music for stress relief

5 mins to read
Music greatly enhances feelings of calm and tranquillity. Explore how your favourite tunes can help you beat the blues.

When sitting in absolute boredom through heavy traffic, which can also be stressful, often one of the first things we do is turn on the radio. When a song starts playing, it often brings much welcome relief, calm, or distraction.

Perhaps you love doing chores or studying with music playing in the background. You may have noticed how music greatly enhances feelings of calm and tranquillity during a yoga or meditation class. Or how much joy and calm you feel when going to concerts.

Studies show that using music in our daily lives can be an effective and powerful tool to help relieve stress.

In fact, according to one 2019 review published in Health Psychology Review, the most widely studied effects of music are the calming and stress-reducing effects.

Different ways of using music can include listening to music, composing music, playing an instrument, and singing.

It can be quick to access and cost-effective, especially with the plethora of online streaming services available to us nowadays.

How does music work to relieve stress?

According to a 2022 review, studies have shown that listening to music induces various physiological and psychological changes in the body associated with stress reduction.

Physiological changes

Activity increases in the sympathetic nervous system, which carries signals to alert the body of a perceived threat, resulting in increased physiological arousal. Cortisol, the hormone that helps the body prepare for the ‘fight or flight’ response, is released.

As the review reports, in comparison to being in silence, music listening is associated with lower heart rate, lower levels of cortisol, and higher levels of parasympathetic activity that brings the body’s systems back to calm.

Effect on emotions

The emotional stress response can include feelings of worry and nervousness. The review also notes that studies show music can evoke positive emotions, which may counteract the negative emotions that come with stress. It also notes that music may provide a distraction from negative or ruminative thoughts.

Studies have suggested music can help to divert attention from stressful thoughts or events to more pleasant ones.

Another review explains how musical creation and music listening could influence the amygdala, a section of the brain that plays a crucial role in emotional regulation.  Listening to music could deactivate the amygdala, which may decrease the intensity of stress-related emotions and psychophysiological arousal. This has been shown to evoke feelings of pleasure and happiness.

A further review in 2020 reports there is evidence that group music activities may result in positive feelings of togetherness and bonding and the release of endorphin and oxytocin, neurotransmitters that both play an important role in the defensive response to stress.

Which type of music is best for stress relief?

Though music has the potential to induce a relaxation response, different types of music can produce different physiological responses, and there is no one song or one type of music that can provide comfort, as a University of Wollongong article explains.In addition, the way people experience, interpret, or enjoy music can vary. It’s important to choose the music that you find helps you to relax the most.

Some research papers have noted that music tempo is one of the most important factors that can moderate the effect of music on stress response.

According to The University of Nevada (UON), Reno Counseling Services, current research suggests that music of around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to sync with this, resulting in alpha brainwaves. Alpha brainwaves are those that are present when we feel relaxed.  Meditative music or sounds are examples of slow and soothing music.

Meanwhile, many researchers agree that faster music can make you feel more alert and improve concentration, while upbeat music can make you feel more positive and have a more optimistic outlook on life.

One review notes studies show music with a slow tempo has often been linked to reduced heart rate and greater relaxation. Instrumental music with no lyrics has been found to have greater effects on stress reduction than music with lyrics. It was suggested that the lyrics may be distracting, though some researchers posit that music with lyrics may have a comforting effect.

The UON states music that is very effective for relaxing includes Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed instruments, and nature sounds such as rain and thunder, particularly when mixed with other music, such as easy listening, light jazz and classical. 

How to incorporate music into daily life

Whether it’s turning on the radio in the car, singing in the shower, studying, doing chores, or playing an instrument, you can turn to music when you feel stressed. You could transform whatever you are doing into a tranquil experience.

As George Mason University suggests, scheduling bits of music regularly into our daily lives may help to combat the daily stress that can accumulate and keep it more at bay before it gets too much to manage.

Listening to calming music as part of your nightly routine before bed can help you to relax, fall asleep better, and even improve sleep quality, as The Sleep Foundation suggests. 

Eating when stressed can lead to overeating, so playing some mellow, serene music while you eat could help reduce stress and encourage mindful eating. Results from a Cornell University and Georgia Institute of Technology study claim that people who ate at dimly lit restaurants with soft music played consumed less food than those who ate in other restaurant settings.




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