Ever since I can remember, listening to music has always been a source of pleasure to me. But since my teen years, when I began to suffer chronic pain, music has become much more to me. It’s become powerful medicine. On an internal level, music has become a tool and a trigger to help me relax or energize my body, remember things I’ve forgotten, escape from my body, sooth my pain, and it gives me a sense of overall well-being. On a social level, music provides a way for me to socialize and spend enjoyable time with friends and family.
Research Shows that “Music Medicine” Works
I’m not the only one who has found music to be an effective remedy. There’s a growing body of research supporting the claim that music can reduce physical pain. Many scientists agree that music has the ability to make you feel good and can be an effective way to reduce pain. Studies have shown that listening to pleasing music increases activity in parts of the brain’s reward center. Robert Zatorre, who studies emotion and music at McGill University, says, “Pleasant music triggers the release of the brain chemical dopamine. “ This change, he says, “…is strongly associated with other rewarding and motivating stimuli, such as food, sex, and certain addictive drugs.”
Music can also reduce pain by competing for our attention. “If you’re thinking about something else, then you’re not thinking about your pain, and you feel less pain,” says psychologist David Bradshaw, who studies pain relief at the University of Utah’s Pain Research Center.
Research also shows music/songs you especially enjoy can also affect how you perceive pain. According to science writer, Mary Bates, “Although musical tastes are subjective, there are common features of music that evoke fairly universal responses….Most people find musical consonance (harmonies or chords) to be pleasant and dissonance (clashing notes) to be unpleasant. When scientists asked study volunteers to evaluate pain while they listened to different types of music, researchers found that people who listened to excerpts of music judged by most to be pleasant (such as the Romantic music piece “The Blue Danube Waltz“) reported less pain than those who listened to unpleasant music (such as Steve Reich’s modern classical piece “Pendulum Music“). The more pleasing the listeners found the music to be, the less pain they felt.”
Music Therapy for Pain
Although, I do my music therapy alone and without guidance, many people with pain are turning to formal music therapy programs that are offered throughout the country. Music therapy can be done one-on-one or in group therapy sessions, and at home, in a medical facility, or other setting in a variety of ways. Medical writer, Dennis Thompson, Jr. (Everyday Heath.org) says, “Patients undergoing music therapy for chronic pain management have been found to: require less pain medication; have significant improvements in their respiration, blood pressure, heart rate, and muscle relaxation; and, enjoy more peace of mind and better quality of life.”
Music therapy can be tailored to the individuals interest and needs and may include: listening; singing along with songs; discussing music with others; using songs/music to trigger memories or create mental images; and, using music to meditate.
My Music Therapy: Using Vivaldi’s “Spring” as a “Springboard
For many years, I’ve listened to the same piece of music, Antonio Vivaldi’s “Spring”, as my “alone time” music therapy, because it almost always works. This piece of music takes me on an internal journey in which I can: explore my feelings and recollect a range of positive images and memories; move from restful to energetic states; imagine the exquisite colors, sounds, and fragrances of the season. I can even feel the soft Spring breeze. The opening notes literally make me sit up and look forward. About 15 to 25 seconds into the music, I take a deep healing breath in anticipation of moving in a positive manner. Then, the various strings entering into the sound cue me to do a body scan—checking to see which of my parts are working well enough to move. Whether it is just tapping my toes, or marching lightly down the block, the music reminds me that there are good things going on in that moment. I am able to move forward gently, lightly, into a fresh spring day. Check out Itzhak Perlman’s version.
Socializing with Music
For me, music motivates me get out of the house and socialize with people. For example, I have a friend who often treats me to concerts. Discovering that there is a First Aid area set up at the venues has relieved a lot of my anxiety about all of the “what ifs.” Since discovering this safety net, I have not yet needed it. It represents insurance for me to have a good time and enjoy the concert. My all time favorite concert moment was seeing Michael Franti perform “Love Somebody” live and watch the audience hug one another as they sang along.
Another “socializing” aspect of music is that when sharing a concert or other types of performances, there are often good conversations afterward. At home, for example, my husband and I love watching “The Voice” on television and then talking about it.
What About You?
Do you use music as pain therapy? Do you do it alone? If so, what do you do? How does music make you feel better? What type/specific music or songs work for you? Do you participate in a music therapy program? If it’s working for you let us know.
If you look online, you’ll find a number of websites with consumer and scholarly articles about the relationship between music and pain and music therapy for pain. Here are a few:
Music for Pain:
- Psychology Today, “Music and Pain Relief”
- Everyday Health: “Music Therapy for Pain Management”
- About Health: “Music Therapy for Fibromyalgia: Does it Work”
Also, check out the Cochrane Library for scholarly articles.
Music and Memory:
- Music and Memory (organization’s website)
- PSYBlog, “Music and Memory: 5 Awesome New Psychology Studies”
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin (available in print and audio versions). Daniel J. Levitin, neuroscientist, musician, and music producer, explores the connection between music – its performance, its composition, how we listen to it, why we enjoy it – and the human brain.