Opinion: music makes us feel good, connects us with others and is at the centre of what it means to be human

As the coronavirus pandemic sweeps across the world, it is inducing a considerable degree of fear, worry and concern in the population at large. In public mental health terms, the main psychological impact to date is elevated rates of stress or anxiety.

In these difficult times, music therapy researchers are investigating how music can help us manage our stressed and anxious bodies, minds and hearts. In every era of human history and in every society around the globe, music has been used to express feelings and communicate with others. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer famously believed the arts lift us out of the misery of being human and British dramatist William Congreve stated in 1697 that "music has charms to sooth a savage breast".

Listening to music can have a positive effect on stress levels and promote relaxation. We know, for example, that dentists routinely use music to reduce anxiety in patients and there is significant research completed in this area. Similarly, there is evidence that music used pre surgery can reduce anxiety and can support people in their perception of pain post-surgery. Music therapists in Ireland regularly use a technique called 'Life review through music' where the person’s favourite music is used to support people with highly anxious behaviours to complete personal care routines.

We need your consent to load this rte-player contentWe use rte-player to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Radio 1, Hilary Moss talks about music and mood

So which music is best for relaxation? It’s important to note that some music can cause harm, noise pollution and distress, which is why I always recommend consulting skilled music therapists to help identify which music will help relaxation and which won’t. There is no magic answer regarding ‘the most relaxing music’. Rather, the research confirms, over and over again, that choosing your personally preferred music is the best way to create relaxation. No one should tell you that a certain type of music is relaxing, and any of the research in that area (such as the famous 'Mozart effect') is limited in usefulness. Rather, choosing music that you will find relaxing is recommended.

That said, common features of relaxing music include music without words (songs can provoke strong memories and emotion); music that is not too emotionally intense for you (a simple song that I enjoy might remind you of a person you loved and lost and leave you overwhelmed with grief); tonal harmony and  a regular pulse. However, my teenage son loves listening to Eminem and finds it relaxing and this is a far cry from what works for me!

We can never prescribe a certain type of music to promote relaxation, but we can prescribe when and where it might be helpful. A seminal study at the Beth Israel Hospital in New York showed that playing live relaxing music to children was as effective as sedation before procedures such as CT and MRI scans. The clinicians at the hospital moved to live music as the preferred treatment followed by sedative medication as a second step where needed.

We need your consent to load this SoundCloud contentWe use SoundCloud to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

From RTÉ Lyric FM, Liz Nolan and guests Hilary Moss, Jennifer Wilson O'Raghallaigh and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra conducted by David Brophy join forces to discuss music and relaxation

Similarly, a breakthrough study showed that listening to your 5 favourite pieces of music in the acute phase of stroke had positive effect on a range of variables in recovery. Recent research tells us that music can enhance the function of neural networks, slow the heart rate, lower blood pressure, reduce levels of stress hormones and inflammatory cytokines, and provide some relief to patients undergoing surgery. It can also assist recovery in people experiencing heart attack and stroke, though more research is needed.

Music can create a strong change in the environment to assist people to relax. When we board an aeroplane (remember that?), for example, the music piped into the cabin is deliberately calm, easy listening and unsurprising. Music is chosen to be predictable, widely enjoyable and calm, to promote confidence in the airline and a sense of ease and relaxation for nervous travellers. Similarly, music in a restaurant is chosen to create a romantic dinner atmosphere and music in the gym encourages us to exercise.

We need your consent to load this YouTube contentWe use YouTube to manage extra content that can set cookies on your device and collect data about your activity. Please review their details and accept them to load the content.Manage Preferences

UL Talks with HIlary Moss

It may be useful during the pandemic to review the music we choose to listen to, take time to be mindfully aware of our body, thoughts and feelings, prioritise our own mental health and create a relaxing music playlist that can support us in creating a more conducive atmosphere of low stress. Doctors tell us that social isolation is a cardiac risk factor, and perhaps music can help us when social distancing takes it’s toll  

Music makes us feel good, connects us with others who like the same music and is at the centre of what it means to be human. It is the sound of human bodies and minds moving in creative, story-making ways. We need to reconnect with our humanity and sense of enjoyment during these bleak times.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ