Listening to “moving” music can help to reduce pain, study finds

Researchers are suggesting that listening to our favourite comforting tracks can act as a “powerful painkiller.”

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A woman wearing headphones and listening to music. She has her eyes closed and is slightly smiling as if relaxed.

Image: Oscar Wong / Getty Images

A new study suggests that listening to emotional music can affect how we feel pain. Researchers have found that listening to “moving” tracks that produce “chills” can link to feeling a lower pain intensity.

In fact, listening to our favourite tracks can approximately offer the same impact as an over-the-counter pain relief remedy such as ibuprofen.

The study, which was reported on by The Guardian, was carried out at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and involved 63 participants. Researchers used a probe device to heat an area on their left arm to recreate a similar sensation to a hot cup of coffee being held against the skin.

Meanwhile, the participants either listened to two of their favourite tracks, relaxing music selected for them, scrambled music, or silence. As the sound or silence went on, the participants were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain they were feeling.

“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,” says Darius Valevicius, the first author of the research from McGill University.

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. However, moving 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,” adds Valevicius, though he clarifies that more work is needed to test these ideas.


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