Your favorite, bittersweet tunes may help relieve pain better than unfamiliar, relaxing music

Understanding music’s role in perceiving pain could lead to better therapies.
A woman wearing over the ear headphones leans her head back and closes her eyes.
When scrambled sound, music, or silence was played in a study, they rated the pain as less intense by about four points on a 100-point scale. DepositPhotos

Research has long suggested that music can help lower pain perception without medication and could even help babies tolerate heel-prick blood tests. Emerging research has also found that music might change our experience of certain types of discomfort.  Importantly,  the type of music you’re listening to may play a role. According to a small Canadian study published October 25 in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research, listening to our favorite music can reduce pain intensity and bittersweet music specifically can help reduce the general unpleasantness of pain. 

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In the body, hypoalgesia is a decreased sensitivity to pain. It happens when pain stimuli are disrupted between their origin point like a knee or foot and where they are recognized as pain by the conscious mind, primarily in the brain’s thalamus and cortex. 

To look into this response, researchers placed heat on the left arms of 63 healthy participants. The sensation was similar to the feeling of a hot cup of coffee being held against the skin. The participants either listened to two of their favorite music tracks, relaxing music selected for them by the researchers, scrambled music, or silence. 

The participants were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain. When scrambled sound or silence was played, the participants rated the pain as less intense by about four points on a 100-point scale. They also said the pain was less unpleasant by about nine points when listening to their preferred tracks, compared with silence or scrambled sound. The relaxing music that was selected for them did not produce this effect, as in zero points.

“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,” study co-author and PhD candidate at the Université de Montréal Darius Valevicius said in a statement. “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.”

They also examined if musical themes could modulate the pain-decreasing effects of favorite music. Participants were asked about their emotional response to their favorite music and the researchers assigned four themes: energizing/activating, happy/cheerful, calming/relaxing, and moving/bittersweet. The different emotional themes varied in their ability to reduce 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 said. 

[Related from PopSci+: The science is clear: Metal music is good for you.]

While neurologists don’t fully understand what stimulates the chills and physical responses we get with some music, these reactions appear to indicate a neurophysiological process that can block some pain signals. Chills can manifest as a tingling sensation, shivers, or goosebumps.

According to the authors, some of the limitations include how long the participants listened to the music samples. For example, listening to relaxing music for longer than seven minutes may have stronger effects than the shorter tracks that the participants listened to. They also need to address if listening to favorite music can be effective with other, non-thermal stimuli like chronic pain.

“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 said.