If you are heading to the dentist, you may want to turn up a rousing Adele ballad. Researchers say our preferred tunes can not only prove to be powerful painkillers, but that moving music may be particularly potent.
Music has long been found to relieve pain, with recent research suggesting the effect may even occur in babies and other studies revealing that people’s preferred tunes could have a stronger painkilling effect than the relaxing music selected for them.
Now, researchers say there is evidence that the emotional responses generated by the music also matter.
“We can approximate that favourite music reduced pain by about one point on a 10-point scale, which is at least as strong as an over-the-counter painkiller like Advil [ibuprofen] under the same conditions. Moving music may have an even stronger effect,” said Darius Valevicius, the first author of the research from McGill University in Montreal, Canada.
Writing in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research, Valevicius and colleagues report how they asked 63 healthy participants to attend the Roy pain laboratory on the McGill campus, where researchers used a probe device to heat an area on their left arm – a sensation akin to a hot cup of coffee being held against the skin.
While undergoing the process, the participants either listened to two of their favourite tracks, relaxing music selected for them, scrambled music, or silence.
As the music, sound or silence continued, the participants were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain.
Each participant experienced each condition for around seven minutes, within which eight pain stimulations and eight ratings took place.
When the auditory period ended, participants were asked to rate the music’s pleasantness, their emotional arousal, and the number of “chills” they experienced – a phenomenon linked to sudden emotions or heightened attention, that can be felt as tingling, shivers or goosebumps.
The results reveal participants rated the pain as less intense by about four points on a 100-point scale, and less unpleasant by about nine points, when listening to their favourite tracks compared with silence or scrambled sound. Relaxing music selected for them did not produce such an effect.
Valevicius said it is unlikely the results are down to second-guessing. “We found a very strong correlation between music pleasantness and pain unpleasantness, but zero correlation between music pleasantness and pain intensity, which would be an unlikely finding if it was just placebo or expectation effects,” he said.
Further work revealed music that produced more chills was associated with lower pain intensity and pain unpleasantness, with lower scores for the latter also associated with music rated more pleasant.
“The difference in effect on pain intensity implies two mechanisms – chills may have a physiological sensory-gating effect, blocking ascending pain signals, while pleasantness may affect the emotional value of pain without affecting the sensation, so more at a cognitive-emotional level involving prefrontal brain areas,” said Valevicius, although he cautioned more work is needed to test these ideas.
Both music pleasantness and chills were rated more highly for moving or bittersweet tracks – although the direct effects of such tunes on pain were unclear.
The researchers say it is not yet known if moving music would have a similar chill-creating effect in those who do not favour it, or if people who favour such music are simply more prone to musical chills.
What’s more, they say the size of the study might mean some relationships cannot be detected, while the relaxing music may not have been played for long enough for an effect to have been seen.
Dr Brendan Rooney, of University College Dublin’s school of psychology, said he was not convinced there is some special quality about the music itself, not least as participants’ perception of pain when listening to a track might influence their report of how they feel.
But Rooney said the work supports findings from his own team that music chosen by participants appears to have a stronger painkilling effect. “Together this paper and our work provide evidence that people who are experiencing pain should be empowered to curate their own analgesic experiences from music and entertainment,” he said.