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Pain-Busting Ballads: Researchers Identify Music That Best Soothes Pain

A vinyl record spinning.
Credit: Adrian Korte/Unsplash
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Your favorite music might be good for more than a workout soundtrack or late-night listening session, suggests a new study. The research, conducted by a team of McGill University scientists, suggests that individuals’ most-loved music could reduce feelings of pain compared to relaxing stock music or silence. The study also identified the characteristics of the most effective pain-preventing music.

Everybody hurts

Pain is a key part of our body’s warning systems. People born without the ability to feel pain risk causing serious damage to their bodies without realizing it. But for swathes of society, inappropriate pain responses cause daily misery, through chronic conditions like cluster headache and fibromyalgia.

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Drug-free techniques to reduce pain have been an increasing focus of research, and a body of work now exists to support the theory that music might be able to help out. In a new article published in Frontiers in Pain Research, Canadian scientists have taken a step toward understanding what the most pain-relieving music might sound like.

The team recruited 63 young adults to take part in the trial. They were surveyed on their favorite songs and asked to pick two tracks representing “their favorite music of all time”, and “the songs that they would bring with them to a desert island”. The cohort was surveyed on why their chosen tracks made the podium. Some participants said they chose music that relaxed them; others went for songs that fired them up. The cohort was also played seven tracks from French “personalized digital treatment” company MUSIC CARE, which claims its app-assisted approach can help with pain, depression and even anxiety caused by Alzheimer’s disease. The cohort could pick 2 of these tracks, which were cut from their original 20-minute length down to just under 7 minutes.

The heat is on

The cohort were then played various tracks while being exposed to thermal pain using a device that raised the surface temperature of their forearm to over 120 °F. They were played different music in blocks – including:

  • Participant-chosen music
  • MUSIC CARE’s proprietary relaxation music
  • Scrambled audio of the first two types of music
  • Silence

“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,” said Darius Valevicius, the study’s first author, in a press release. Listeners had to rate the pain’s intensity and unpleasantness on a scale from 1–100. They also asked their cohort how they rated the music’s pleasantness, how much it aroused them and how many times it gave them “chills”, pleasant goosebump-inducing reactions to music that are also known as frissons.

The data from the trials was clear; a participant’s favorite, unscrambled music was the only audio that helped them reduce their pain ratings. Pain intensity hovered at around the 52.5 mark for the other conditions but averaged around 48 when their chosen jams were heard – a statistically significant difference. The participants rated the pain’s “unpleasantness” nearly 10 points lower when listening to their favorite music compared to the next-most-pleasant audio.

Bittersweet symphony

The team then looked at the themes present in the music that reduced pain most effectively. One particular category stood out. “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,” said Valevicius.

The authors were clear about their trial’s limitations, pointing to the small sample size in the research and the difficulty in disentangling the characteristics of moving, bittersweet music from the personalities of people who highly rate such music. “Individuals who chose to bring moving/bittersweet songs may habitually experience more musical chills and musical enjoyment, resulting in lower pain ratings,” the authors write.

The team noted that previous studies had suggested MUSIC CARE’s relaxing sounds would be effective in reducing pain in contrast to their own findings. They also said that the evidence is now stacking up that one’s favorite music is most effective at soothing pain. One final conclusion is a warning for ballad fiends who want to unleash My Heart Will Go On before they next carry a heavy load of groceries.

“The negative aspects of the clinical experience may create aversive associations with the favorite music, reducing the pleasure individuals may take from it in the future,” they write. In short, if you make your favorite music the soundtrack for painful experiences, it might fairly soon stop being your favorite music.

Reference: Valevicius DJ, Lopez AL, Diushekeeva A, Lee A and Roy M. Emotional responses to favorite and relaxing music predict music-induced hypoalgesia. Front pain res. 2023. doi:10.3389/fpain.2023.1210572