Analysis: we can listen to music to aid our own relaxation and reduce stress in everyday life

Listening to music can help to reduce our heart rate, respiratory rate, anxiety levels and perception of pain. A 2019 study of music in operating theatres concluded that beneficial effects of music on surgical performance have been observed and outweigh the negative effects such as potential noise distraction. Music listening is routinely used as part of MRI scanning to help people to cope with the anxiety associated with entering the MRI machine and many of us listen to music on the drive home from work as part of stress reduction. Music listening is something we all engage in, to some degree, to manage negative emotions, enhance positive emotions and improve emotion states.

So how can we use music listening to aid our own relaxation and reduce stress in everyday life? A popular technique to manage anxiety is to focus on the present moment (leaving aside worries about the past or future). Some of us find meditation or sitting in silence difficult, even more so if we are anxious. Listening to music offers a way to focus on the moment, rest for a few minutes and engages musical elements (such as pulse, tonality, and dynamics) to reinforce a state of relaxation and stillness.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Today With Claire Byrne, the important role music can play in time of a crisis like the pandemic

Psychologist Abraham Maslow famously cited three activities as offering peak life experiences. The most common (moments of ecstasy, wonder and awe are (i) being in nature, (ii) listening to music and (iii) having sex. Peak experiences also bear numerous similarities to the concept known as flow described by positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow is a state of mind during which people become so involved in an activity that the world seems to fade away and nothing else seems to matter, such as painting or listening to music.

Despite these indicators, listening to music has received relatively sparse attention in the literature, with more studies focusing on active participation in creative arts for heath and wellbeing and less on listening. Ralph Spingte coined the phrase Music Medicine to refer to clinicians prescribing listening to music for relaxation and distraction from pain.

So, is there any science to how can we best select music to assist us to relax, meditate and feel calmer Repeatedly, the research emphasises the importance of personal choice of music. Evidence exists that personal selection of music makes for a more effective music listening intervention than any 'prescribed' music.

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From RTÉ Lyric FM's Culture File, has music found fresh importance in the pandemic era, via its impact on health and wellness?

Music preference is key to music therapy practice and is often not a feature of other music listening approaches. Jayne Standley's meta-analysis shows that the effect sizes of benefits such as pain or anxiety reduction are higher when music therapists utilise the user's preferred music. Preferred or self-chosen music is likely to be especially proficient at reducing pain as self-chosen music is already liked, which provides an easily achievable sustained attention and entrainment.

The analgesic effect of listening to music may be secondary to cognitive and emotional effects that arise from listening to music, namely distraction from the pain, pleasantness, and pleasure, memory evoked emotions and relaxation. A 2017 randomised feasibility study investigated the effects of a single session of music therapy using listening to personally preferred music for cardiovascular patients. They studied mood and pain and found that this approach can have immediate positive effects on anxiety, depression, and pain. However, they conclude that little is known as to how people perceive and experience this music and why receptive music listening may be an effective intervention.

As a music therapist, I am often asked to recommend music to help people meditate, relax, and reduce anxiety. The evidence suggests that the best music to help you relax is music that you choose yourself. Chosen well, music can help us to cope, celebrate, grieve, and exercise, but it works best if chosen by ourselves, at the right time and place.

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That said, after persistent requests I have created this playlist of music that might help to calm a furrowed brow, take a deep breath, be mindful of the present moment or relax. The general rule of thumb for music to aid stress reduction is music that it has a regular pulse (no sudden changes); it is harmonically relatively predictable and has no lyrics (instrumental music is easier to relax to). But every music can hold emotional memories so be careful that you choose what works for you. Be sceptical of any music that claims to be 'the most relaxing in the world' and have confidence to explore and choose music for yourself.

This playlist was prepared with help from Dr Liz Coombes from University of South Wales and colleagues at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick.


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