MONTREAL, Quebec — Grab your headphones — listening to your favorite music can alleviate pain. A new study reveals that a patient’s preferred music effectively eases discomfort without the need for medication, enhancing an individual’s ability to cope with physical pain. Songs, recitals, or performances that participants favored significantly outperformed generic clips of relaxing music in reducing discomfort.
Researchers in Canada explain that hypoalgesia – a decreased sensitivity to pain – arises when there’s an interruption in pain stimuli transmission, from the point of entry to the brain’s conscious recognition. The new study aimed to determine which music genres reduced pain perception most effectively.
“In our study, we show that favorite music chosen by study participants has a much larger effect on acute thermal pain reduction than unfamiliar relaxing music,” says Darius Valevicius, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal, in a media release.
“We also found that emotional responses play a very strong role in predicting whether music will have an effect on pain.”
In their experiment, participants felt moderate thermal pain on their inner forearm, akin to holding a warm teacup against the skin. This pain was then paired with music segments, each around seven minutes long, at the Roy Pain Lab at McGill University. Contrasted with generic music or silence, participants’ favorite tunes substantially diminished both pain intensity and its associated unpleasantness. However, unfamiliar relaxing tracks did not yield the same results.
“In addition, we used scrambled music, which mimics music in every way except its meaningful structure, and can therefore conclude that it is probably not just distraction or the presence of a sound stimulus that is causing the hypoalgesia,” Valevicius explains.
Furthermore, the team explored whether specific musical themes could influence the pain-reducing effects. They interviewed participants regarding their emotional reactions to their favorite music and categorized them under themes like energizing/activating, happy/cheerful, calming/relaxing, and moving/bittersweet. They found varying capabilities in these emotional themes to mitigate pain.
“We found that reports of moving or bittersweet emotional experiences seem to result in lower ratings of pain unpleasantness, which was driven by more intense enjoyment of the music and more musical chills,” Valevicius continues.
While the exact nature of “musical chills” remains unclear, they appear to trigger a neurophysiological response effective at blocking pain pathways. Some individuals experience these chills as a tingling sensation, shivers, or goosebumps.
The research did have its limitations. One such constraint was the duration for which participants listened to music samples. For instance, extended exposure to relaxing music might produce more pronounced effects than the shorter tracks used in the study.
“Especially when it comes to the emotion themes in favorite music like moving/bittersweet, we are exploring new dimensions of the psychology of music listening that have not been well-studied, especially in the context of pain relief. As a result, the data we have available is limited, although the preliminary results are fairly strong,” Valevicius concludes.
These findings are published in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research.
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South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.