Did you know that music can be used as a therapeutic strategy to reduce stress?
It may surprise you, but empirical findings show that listening to music significantly impacts the autonomic nervous system and reduces the impact of stress on the human body (Thoma et al., 2013).
The same holds true for playing music and attending live performances — these musical activities are more than just pastimes or hobbies. Instead, music can serve as a powerful therapeutic tool that facilitates the relaxation response, reduces pain, and helps you cope with stress and anxiety.
In this article, we’ll explore the science-backed effects of music on mental health and show how playing an instrument, listening to a soothing melody, or being immersed in a live music performance can promote psychological well-being.
The Science of Music and Stress Reduction
Now, let’s explain how music is related to stress reduction. Usually, when you’re stressed, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up. It’s your body’s way of dealing with a challenging situation. But when you listen to gentle, soothing music, your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure decreases, and you start to relax.
Music impacts not just your physiology but also your brain. In fact, music triggers the release of chemicals in your brain, such as dopamine, which helps you feel happier and less stressed (Salimpoor et al., 2011). As a result of these positive physiological and psychological effects, music is often used as an intervention to promote stress reduction (De Witte et al., 2020).
This therapeutic power of music can be explained by a few scientific concepts. The first concept to consider is ‘resonance frequency.’ Every object vibrates at a specific frequency, including the human body. When the rhythm of music matches the natural resonance frequency of our bodies, it can produce a calming and grounding effect.
Also, there’s ‘brainwave entrainment,’ where our brainwave frequencies start to synchronize with the rhythmic patterns in music. Slow, steady beats encourage slower brainwaves, similar to those present in deep relaxation or meditation. This can help guide the mind from a stressed state to a more tranquil one.
How Does Sound Help You Release Tension?
When we hear a sound, our ears convert the sound waves into nerve signals. These signals lead to various physiological reactions in our bodies. For instance, loud or unexpected noises can make our cortisol levels go up and our hearts beat faster. As a result, we feel alert and tense.
Interestingly, music plays a calming role. Its rhythmic patterns and familiar melodies mimic natural, soothing sounds. As our brains process these musical cues, they trigger the production of dopamine, a hormone associated with pleasure and reward. This release of dopamine fosters a feeling of relaxation and happiness.
In essence, here are some of the ways music can help us release tension:
- It slows down our heart – Slow, peaceful music can make our heart beat slower, which helps us feel relaxed.
- It helps us breathe deeper – When our heart slows down, our breathing often does too. Deep, relaxed breathing – another physiological sign of reduced tension.
- It can lower our blood pressure – Some studies say that calming music can help lower our blood pressure. This helps our bodies respond to relaxation.
- It makes us feel good – Music can trigger the release of dopamine, a ‘feel-good’ hormone that contributes to an overall sense of well-being and happiness (Salimpoor et al., 2011).
- It reduces perceived stress levels – Music can alter our perception of stress, helping us feel more relaxed and less overwhelmed by the challenges we face.
- It lifts our mood – By making us feel good, music can help lift our mood. This is why music therapy is used to treat depression. As studies show, music therapy can provide significant short-term benefits for people diagnosed with depression (Aalbers et al., 2017).
Listening to Music as a Form of Relaxation
It turns out that the simplest way to take advantage of the power of music for your well-being is to incorporate listening to it into your everyday routine. Whether it’s playing in the background as we work, providing rhythm during our workout, or calming our nerves on the way, music acts as a stress buffer.
By absorbing our attention and shifting our focus, music provides a form of distraction that allows us to momentarily forget our worries (e.g., Chirico et al., 2020). For some, this distraction becomes a valuable tool for managing anxiety or pain.
It’s important to note that the genre of music we choose to listen to can have a significant effect on our mood and productivity. Fast, upbeat music can make us feel more alert and optimistic, which can help increase productivity. On the contrary, slower, calming music can foster a sense of relaxation and peace.
Here are some benefits of incorporating listening to music into our daily lives:
- Enhanced emotional awareness – Music often mirrors the emotions we are experiencing or wish to experience. As a result, we can better connect with and understand our feelings. It’s especially true when we choose songs that reflect our emotional state.
- Improved cognitive performance – Music can stimulate our brains in a way that enhances cognitive performance. This could include improved memory recall, better focus, or more efficient problem-solving abilities. Some studies even suggest that our preferred background music helps us perform better on complex cognitive tasks (Kiss & Linnell, 2021).
- Better sleep quality – Listening to soothing music at bedtime can significantly improve sleep quality. This indicates that incorporating calming music into our nighttime routines can be an effective strategy for combating sleep disturbances related to stress (Jespersen & Vuust, 2012).
Playing Music as Stress Therapy
Not only listening to music but also playing it yourself can be extremely helpful for stress management. When you’re playing a musical instrument, it’s like you’re giving your brain a workout, and at the same time, you’re letting yourself express what you feel, which is important to process and deal with stressors.
For example, according to a 2017 study, playing the piano can lower your cortisol levels and decrease anxiety (Toyoshima, 2011). Furthermore, learning music can make your brain work more productively, improve your mental health, and help you connect with others (Shipman, 2016).
The reason is that playing music gets your mind off things that trigger stress and allows you to stay in the present moment, which can make you feel more relaxed and happy.
Experiencing Live Music: The Concert Effect
And finally, If you’ve ever been to a live concert and felt really good afterward, you need to know that there’s a scientific reason behind it.
Going to a live concert is more than just listening to music, right? It’s about the whole experience, the people around you, and feeling connected to the musicians. All of this can help you feel less stressed.
Researchers at London’s Royal College of Music did a study and found that seeing a live classical music concert helps lower stress. They tested the saliva and heart rates of people in the audience and the singers and discovered that both the audience and the singers had lower cortisol levels after the concert (Whitacre, 2015).
So, guess what? If you go see live music regularly, you can get more creative, feel happier, and connect better with people.
Make Music a Part of Your Stress Management Strategy
As you can see, music can be a fantastic tool for managing stress. It helps us relax, feel better, and reconnect with our emotions. So, why not make it a part of your everyday life?
Whether you’re listening to your favorite songs, playing an instrument, or going to concerts, music can be a great way to take care of your well-being.
Still, if you’re finding it hard to handle stress or could use professional help, reach out to our licensed counselors at Grand Rapids, MI, or Ada, MI, or schedule online sessions. Our team of experienced therapists at Health for Life Counseling is more than willing to incorporate elements of music therapy into the counseling process to create personalized plans for stress management.