Music has been used for hundreds of years to restore harmony between mind and body. In recent decades, researchers have measured health-related advantages of music, particularly as they relate to stress reduction and relaxation induction.
Stress can either increase the risk of or exacerbate serious health issues like anxiety, asthma, depression, gastrointestinal problems, heart disease, and obesity. On the flip side, being in a state of relaxation can help counter all of these things—and more.
Tunes alone may not cure stress-related illnesses and conditions, but studies show that the benefits of music include soothing stress and encouraging relaxation.
How Does Music Relieve Stress?
Music connects with the automatic nervous system—brain function, blood pressure, and heartbeat—and the limbic system, where your feelings and emotions live.
If you feel threatened, your nervous system releases stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Listening to music can switch the stress response to “off” and help your mind and emotions recover from stress faster than they would without music.
Beyond Music to Sounds
Just as music can impact mood and the nervous system, so can sounds of all kinds.
For example, have you ever tried to carry on a deep conversation with a friend in a busy coffee shop where baristas yell out drink orders, the espresso machine blares, patrons move screeching chairs across the floor, kids cry, and everyone around you tries to have conversations at competing volumes? It can be tough—and not just because you can’t hear what your friend is saying. You might notice that you feel anxiety due to the noise pollution, which is described as any unwanted or disturbing sounds.
Excessive undesired noise can lead to a host of health issues, including stress and anxiety.
Conversely, naturalistic sounds, such as the ebb and flow of the ocean tide or leaves rustling in the wind, are reported as promoting relaxation. Researchers at Brighton and Sussex Medical School did a sound study on 17 healthy adults. The participants received functional magnetic resonance imaging scans, which measure brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow, as they listened to a series of five-minute soundscapes of natural and manmade environments. The nature sounds correlated with an increase in the autonomic nervous system’s parasympathetic response or “rest-digest” response, which helps the body relax and function in normal circumstances.
The Best Types of Music and Sounds for Relaxation
Some research points to the following types of music and sounds as being effective stress reducers:
- Light jazz and classical music
- Native American, Celtic and Indian stringed-instruments, drums, and flutes
- Rain, wind, and other nature sounds
Neuroscientists in the United Kingdom conducted a study that had participants connected to sensors try to quickly solve difficult, stress-inducing puzzles as they listened to different songs. The researchers measured brain activity and physiological states such as heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing.
The participants’ overall anxiety dropped by 65 percent as they listened to one particular song: “Weightless” by Marconi Union. As it turns out, the song was created in collaboration with sound therapists who carefully arranged the harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines to help slow a listener's heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and lower the stress-hormone cortisol.
Will the song “Weightless”—or light jazz, Native American drumming, or rain and thunder sounds—significantly drop your anxiety levels? That’s for you to figure out. If you’re feeling angry, you might find you need a few minutes with the heavily distorted guitars and aggressive, deep-growling vocals of death metal to work through your emotions so you can then feel a sense of release and relaxation afterward. You’re the expert on what types of music and sounds reduce stress or evoke relaxation in you. Try out different songs and sounds to see what resonates.
It’s Not Just About Listening
Just as much as listening to music or sounds can ease tension and help you to relax, so can making music yourself or with other people. When you play an instrument or sing, your body releases endorphins, which are the chemicals that make you feel happy.
A study led by Dr. James Hudziak, professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, showed that playing an instrument helped children, ages 6 to 18, reduce feelings of anxiety and gain greater control over their emotions. Another study—this one focused on cancer patients—concluded that singing can lower cortisol levels and improve mood through the release of endorphins.
When to Use Music and Sounds for Stress Relief
You can sit in stillness and do nothing but listen to or create music or sounds to relax. However, music and sounds can also serve as a soundtrack for your activities. If those activities are particularly challenging in nature or they prompt you to feel stress, music can dial back the cortisol response so you can, at least, find neutrality in the activity and, at best, increased enjoyment in what you’re doing.
Here are seven occasions for which you may want to create a custom playlist:
- While getting ready for your day: If the day ahead includes a big presentation or a tough conversation, some tunes could ease your nerves and even shift them into feelings of confidence and compassion so you’re more ready to take on the known stressors—and any unexpected ones that may come up.
- During a commute: Road rage doesn’t get you anywhere other than to a place of increased stress and anxiety. Music can help you release some built-up tension and also help reframe negative thoughts about the commute itself (e.g., how rude other drivers are, how the long train or bus ride feels like wasted time) to thoughts focused on how great the music makes you feel.
- While doing chores: Although it can feel gratifying to come home to a clean house, finding energy to do what it takes to get to that outcome can feel like just another thing on the seemingly endless list of to-do’s. Music can be a great motivator and help make even the most routine or mundane tasks seem more fun. If you’ve never had an impromptu dance party to your favorite song while vacuuming, give it a try and see how you feel afterward.
- During a significant life change: Significant life events—getting a new job, losing a job, moving, getting married, breaking up with someone, having a baby, retiring, losing someone to death—all involve change. It doesn’t matter whether the change is underscored by happy or sad emotions, change in and of itself often triggers the fight-or-flight response. Assigning a song, type of music, or a full playlist to major changes can help you work through the associated emotions so that you can eventually move past them.
- While eating: Eating too quickly or eating while stressed can interfere with digestion, and solid digestion is paramount to good health and well-being. Listening to relaxing music or calming sounds while eating can help you nosh more mindfully.
- While on deadline: Racing against the clock to meet a project deadline can feel exhilarating and motivating. However, there’s also an element of stress that may ensue, particularly if you feel like you could miss the desired finish time and your boss might be upset. Because calming music activates the right and left brain, it’s known to improve concentration, which can get you to the finish line quicker.
- As you wind down to go to bed: Getting adequate sleep can help you better deal with stress. Research shows that during the rapid-eye movement (REM) stage of sleep—when dreams occur—stress hormones decrease and your brain is prepped for the next day’s social and emotional functioning. However, stress can interfere with sleep. Soothing tunes and sounds can help slow down your breath and relax your mind. Before going to bed, some people turn on white noise machines, which produce natural sounds such as rushing waterfalls or wind blowing through trees, to help them fall into a deep slumber.
You don’t have to know how music relieves stress; trust that other people have figured it out and simply enjoy the results! If you are looking for something to lower your stress levels during certain activities or to help you feel more relaxed overall, give your chosen calm-inducing music a go. Relaxation music and sounds have been proven to help alleviate anxiety and kickstart the feeling of peace. So, turn them on. Maybe even turn them up. Then, simply enjoy.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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