- Sound influences the brain, heartbeat, and respiration. Slow and soothing songs tend to calm the body down.
- Individual musical preferences may be more important in terms of how a song can modulate someone’s stress.
- Building relationships with others through music and curating your preferred soundscape can be helpful in reducing stress.
If you’ve ever turned on a slow jazz track to relax or cranked up the volume on your favorite pop banger to get out of a funk, it should be no surprise that music can be a powerful de-stressor.
Music affects both the psyche and the body. Listening to music can be so emotionally arousing that it sends chills down the spine. It can also release the “feel-good” chemical dopamine and stimulate areas in the brain that experience pleasure like food, sex, and drugs.
There are hundreds of playlists online with titles like “Relaxing Music to Relieve Stress and Anxiety.” The song “Weightless” by Marconi Union, for example, was designed to slow down heart rate and relax the listener. A small study indicated that the song is more soothing than a 10-minute massage.
But the reality is that playing a 10-hour version of “Weightless” may not be a cure-all for stress, especially if you don’t enjoy instrumental ambient music. Your preferences and memories associated with certain songs may determine which type of music best eases stress for you.
“I’m always wary of ‘Use this playlist for this experience.’ It’s more individualized than that. Music is not just a panacea. It’s not a curative,” Michael Viega, PhD, an associate professor of music therapy at Montclair State University, told Verywell.
Sound Shapes How the Brain and Body Experience Stress
When a song comes on, it can affect our emotional and physical state almost instantaneously.
The tempo of the song influences the pulse of neural signals in the brain. These changes can affect how fast the heart beats and how quickly we breathe, according to Leslie Henry, MM, MT-BC, a professor and director of music therapy at Alverno College in Wisconsin. Songs with slower tempos tend to reduce heart rate and respiration while faster music can be more stimulating.
“Music has the ability to affect all of the things that keep us alive—our blood pressure, our heart rate, our temperature, our metabolic and hormonal regulators,” Henry told Verywell. “It has the ability to start affecting those things even before we’re aware that we’re connecting with the memories in the music.”
In patients undergoing invasive surgical procedures, listening to relaxing music can decrease their levels of the stress hormone cortisol and reduce pain. But soothing classical music isn’t effective for every patient, and it’s not totally clear whether it’s the music itself that decreases stress or the distraction it provides from the procedure.
Researchers speculate that psychological factors, like someone’s musical preferences and memories, could have an even stronger effect on their physical response to a song.
Music can directly affect the regions of the brain that manage other types of stress, including those related to social and family dynamics, bodily changes related to puberty or aging, the political atmosphere, and living conditions.
In some cases, the ambient sounds in a person’s life can contribute to chronic stress. According to Viega, his adolescent patients in North Philadelphia and South Chicago often lived in sound environments filled with sirens and other noises that trigger a fight-or-flight response.
In those situations, the mind may respond in ways meant to protect the body from danger, such as releasing cortisol. Over time, these physiological changes can have long-term health effects, but creating playlists that change one’s sound environment can help mitigate those impacts.
“It’s about helping people become more conscious of what sounds they’re inviting into their lives in a way that can help regulate stress,” Viega said.
Leslie Henry, MM, MT-BC
Music therapists are asked this question quite often: ‘Is there one kind of music that you recommend?’ And the answer is no, because it really is about the assessment and the individuality of the person.
— Leslie Henry, MM, MT-BC
How to Curate Playlists to Destress
You are your own best judge when deciding what tracks to play for self-soothing, Viega said. For instance, he avoids classical music, which he finds to be evocative. Lo-fi beats, on the other hand, create a soundscape that allows him to focus and relax.
Curating a playlist with intentionality can be an artistic practice, Viega added. Take note of how you feel when you listen to different music and curate playlists for different activities.
“If I have a task—whether it’s working, cleaning the house, driving, or wanting to reflect on the day—whatever task I have, if the music contains me and holds me there, it’s working. As soon as it moves me out of that task, it’s meant for something else,” Viega said.
For the most centering and meditative effects, it’s best to put your work away and focus on the song alone, Henry suggested. Attempting to be fully present when listening to music can help redirect your mind away from the thoughts that may be causing feelings of stress.
“Pay attention to the contours of the melodies—do they go up? Do they go down? What instrumentation might be involved in the music? What does the quality of the voice sound like that is singing the vocals?” Henry said. “Those are all things that promote presence and being in the here and now.”
Songs You Love Will Also Be the Most Relaxing
Music therapists work with a new patient by first understanding the patient’s relationship to music. This may include questions about the patient’s cultural background, music preferences, how their stress manifests, and what their social life was like growing up.
“Music therapists are asked this question quite often: ‘Is there one kind of music that you recommend?’ And the answer is no, because it really is about the assessment and the individuality of the person,” Henry said.
As it turns out, the most important factor when determining how effective a song will be at mitigating stress is not how well they know the song, nor whether it would fit as background music in a spa, but rather how well the listener likes it.
People’s music preferences are tied to where they grow up, what their parents liked, what they listened to as children, and the social circles they run in. The music people like between the ages of 10 and 30 years old tend to shape their musical preferences throughout life.
“Those songs tend to be very strongly guarded in our memories and in our positive emotions because of who we were becoming as individuals as we were adolescents. That’s very closely tied to, and influences, the musical preference choices that we make as adults,” Henry said.
The therapeutic effects of music extend beyond the tunes themselves, Viega said. The practice of cultivating a playlist can teach you more about yourself. Receiving music recommendations from loved ones, listening to music in a group setting, and working with a music therapist can help people to build relationships, which is important for stress reduction.
“Music alone is not going to get you there. Music should be cultivated in relationship and culture—that’s where we find healing,” Viega said. “Utilize music therapeutically in your life, build relationships, connect. If you feel stuck, or you feel like something comes up in the process, then turn the therapeutic experiences into therapy.”
What This Means For You
If you deal with chronic stress, anxiety, or pain, consider working with a musical therapist to learn how to use sound as treatment.