Can music reduce stress?

Music and stress

Stress. Relaxation. A lot of people turn to music in relation to either of these things. But is it effective? With the help of science, history and music itself, we discover the real truth behind this age old question: can music reduce stress?

Let’s face it, at some point in our lives we’ve turned to music to help reduce stress – and the internet knows it. Simply search for words such as ‘chill’ or ‘relax’ on Spotify, and you will find a rich digital library of playlists devoted to our wellbeing and precious downtime.

From playlists labelled ‘Ambient Chill’, to the more specific ‘Chill Lofi Study Beats’ (we promise we didn’t make that one up), there’s no denying modern society’s penchant for wanting to literally turn up, tune in and drop out.

But why do we put our trust in this art form, and what genres do we gravitate towards most? And more importantly – can music reduce stress? There are a number of factors – some of which are more deep-rooted than you might think.

Money, Money, Money

Can music reduce stress?

In Western culture, especially during ancient through to medieval times, music existed as an integral part of a religious society. Exclusively enjoyed by nobility behind closed doors in their courts and castles, it was an expensive, high-brow form of entertainment and incredibly sought after across Europe.

Fast-forward 500 years or so, and combined with the remarkable advent of technology, music has evolved into an eminently accessible art form, made even more reachable through streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music.

And unlike the nobility and church who paid composers and musicians for each performance back in the day, a small subscription fee a month for access to millions of tracks is an economically viable choice for those seeking instant relaxation in modern times.

A formula for relaxation?

Can music reduce stress?

So how does music make us feel more relaxed or de-stressed? We’ve turned to science for this one.

A study in New York examined the effect of music on surgical patients suffering with cataracts. Forty patients volunteered for a trial: all received ordinary care, however one half of the group listened to music through headphones before, during and immediately after the operations.

Just before surgery, the heart rates and blood pressure of all patients increased. However, the patients who were subjected to the sounds of the operating room remained in a state of heightened tension, while the pressure readings of patients who listened to music decreased rapidly and remained low in the recovery room – a promising result for music.

While the choice of music wasn’t disclosed in this study, we have evidence to suggest that different kinds of music also help to lower stress levels.

In another study, volunteers were assigned one of three different sonic conditions (relaxing music, rippling water and no acoustic stimulation) before being exposed to a stress test.

Interestingly, it was the sound of rippling water that produced the lowest stress levels compared to the other conditions, but the relaxing music was more effective in a faster autonomic (heart rate and blood pressure) recovery than both of the other controlled sonic conditions, proving that music can reduce stress.

It’s a natural choice

Can music reduce stress?

Scientists found it surprising that natural sounds, like that of the rippling water, were interpreted by the volunteers’ brains as a relaxation tool. But on closer inspection, this response could be engrained in our very DNA.

This stems back to early human existence, where sounds of the natural world were once all a human could hear. Picture waking up to rustling leaves, a gentle stream or the sounds of birds. These sound-worlds from hundreds of years ago provide an insightful link to how humans perceive natural sounds today.

A genre like Biomusic blends natural sounds like animal noises and field recordings together with music, creating a supposed perfect combination for human ears.

And, according to an Italian study involving 24 volunteers, tempo also matters.

They found that slow or meditative music was far more effective at relaxing the subjects, while faster tempos produced a higher amount of arousal. However, immediately after the latter music stopped, heart rates and blood pressures fell to levels below usual, showing that music can reduce stress.

Music for sleep

Can music reduce stress?

From stress relievers to sleep-inducers, in 2015 a contemporary classical composer Max Richter wrote and recorded an eight-hour long piece designed to be listened to over the course of a full sleep cycle.

Described in the album notes as an ‘eight-hour lullaby’, Richter conferred with American neuroscientist David Eagleman to learn about how the brain functions during sleep.

“We got talking about the various phases of sleep – the dreaming sleep and the various stages of deep sleep. There is also a particular area of sleep called slow-wave sleep, where the brain basically gets into step with itself and gets into this one single phase of these relatively slow brain waves – around 10 Hz or so – and the whole brain ‘fires all at once’.”

It is also scientifically proven that music reduces stress response during shut-eye.

In a study involving 10 critically ill postoperative patients under the influence of the sedative propofol whilst using breathing machines, half of the patients were played slow movements from Mozart piano sonatas.

The nurses reported that the patients in the controlled music setting required significantly less propofol to maintain sleep sedation than the other half who were not played the music. Lower blood pressures and heart rates, as well as lower stress hormones were found in conjunction with these results.

So can music reduce stress? Well it clearly plays a larger part in stress reduction than we might have thought. And while we know how it relieves us of stress, further exploration into the genres and sounds that facilitate this change could prove to be music’s next eureka moment.

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7 Comments

  • J says:

    Is there evidence that higher quality audio is correlated to higher magnitude of stress reduction?

  • Bowers & Wilkins says:

    We didn’t find any evidence as such in our research – although you’ve started to give us ideas… However, we are certain that being exposed to the purest audio signal on the best equipment possible significantly elevates any listening experience, and in doing so naturally brings a sense of happiness to oneself.

  • Loyd Turner says:

    https://www.stereophile.com/content/take-two-grateful-deads-and-call-me-morning

    There you go! Quality matters!

    Loyd

  • Bowers & Wilkins says:

    Great find.

  • Andreas says:

    Thanks for your article. I can only speak for myself, but as much as GOOD sound (natural sound) heightens our well being BAD sound (“Lärm” german) influences us more than we might think and lowers our quality of live. As the world is more and more polluted with BAD sound introduced by any uncontrolled artificial sound emitters with high volume no recognizable sound patter and distortions like cars, airplanes, computers, home utilities and so many more that you can’t count them anymore, it becomes nearly necessary to control the sound environment you want to live in. No wonder that noise canceling headphones have become so popular. When working in an open office environment as a developer it has become absolutely necessary for me to be productive. I would not doubt a second that natural sound patterns (rippling water = well of drinking water = good place to survive) are hard wired into our brains via our DNA through million year evolution because it gave us the competitive advantage. Humans are so close to nature in their essence and so far away from it at the same time.
    Now I go back now to listen to some GREAT sounding music.

    Btw: Even though I don’t like Dvorak that much the Society of Sound 5.1 channel mix of the Dvorak String Quintet just sounds spectacular on my system. Thanks for sharing.

  • Slagverket says:

    Nice article. I do concur to the conclusion that music relieves stress no matter what tempo or material as long as the subject enjoys the music. Sure, if I put on “Highway to hell” while pulling a beer after work on a Friday the results vary from having a bath listening to Peter Gabriel’s cover of Heroes. But the main stress relief is that when you connect to music it takea your train of thought elsewhere. Music is just as great a stress relief as gardening or running or whatever is your bag.
    Coming back to an earlier reply. Sure, I’m absolutely certain sound quality matters. The less distorted the original signal the less your brain “thinks” about odd frequencies or other artifacts and just, enjoys the music.
    B&W opened my ears to this fact when I listened to the 801 s-2. Way back then. I never looked back (heard back?!?!) 👂🙏☝️🤘✌️🌟

  • Colin Stone says:

    I’ve worked with music for stress relief since the 1980s. I work with clients using a sound therapy bed, a type of giant subwoofer that sends low-frequency sound through the body and has an almost instant calming effect! I’ve also produced relaxation tracks such as “The Psychologically Ultimate Waterfall” and “Ambient Music for Reading and Study” that work on the premise that we are hard-wired to respond to certain sounds with specific emotional responses. Since music affects our emotions, I think that high quality audio equipment is an investment in yourself!

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