The role of music in stress management

Music can be a useful tool in relieving stress.

Young woman listening to music.
Photo: Unsplash/Jackson Simmer.

Music can be used as a therapeutic tool to not only reduce stress, but to also promote healing and improve one’s overall emotional well-being. Recent research demonstrates that the use of music in addition to standard therapeutic tools provides additional restorative benefits for people with depression and anxiety, compared to those who received just therapy without the use of music. Different uses may include listening to music, playing a musical instrument, singing along to music and using guided imagery with music.

Music can make us feel good. There is solid evidence that music stimulates the production of dopamine, the “feel good” hormone in our bodies. Through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a 2011 study demonstrated that dopamine increased in the brain when listeners experienced positive emotions in the same areas of the brain where pleasure is experienced when food and other sorts of cravings are satisfied. These findings may shed light on why music has played such a significant role shaping culture and is a source of pleasure for human beings throughout our history. Music is an integral part of life’s milestones and just about every significant life event across cultures, including weddings, birthday celebrations, funerals and religious activities.

In addition to helping human beings experience positive emotions, listening to music has also been associated with improving our physical health and well-being. There is good reason to believe that even more benefits are gained from music therapy when it is used not as a random activity, but as an intentional strategy to improve health and well-being. One study demonstrated that listening to music while taking a break reduced the prevalence of stress among front-line nurses, a profession that has long been marked by high rates of stress and occupational burn-out. In this study, participants were divided into two groups. One group listened to soothing music of their choice for 30 minutes while the other group rested quietly sitting in a chair for the same length of time. When outcomes were compared for the two groups, nurses who listened to music had lower perceived stress levels, lower levels of cortisol in their bloodstream and lower heart rates when compared to the group that rested in the chair.

Music can be an extremely useful tool for a wide range of audiences for stress relief since it is free or low-cost and readily available through a vast array of digital outlets. Any activity we engage in can be mindful and music provides the ultimate outlet to get lost or immerse oneself in something other than the thoughts in one’s head. Anyone can put a playlist together on their devices with music that aids in stress reduction; here is a sample of some relaxing songs:

  1. “In My Time” by Yanni
  2. Pachelbel’s Canon in D
  3. “Sailing” by Christopher Cross
  4. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” by Bobby McFerrin
  5. “Easy” by the Commodores
  6. “Hasta Mi Final” by Il Divo
  7. “The Best of Michael Franks” by Michael Franks
  8. “Wake Up” by Marvin Gaye
  9. “When you say Nothing at All” by Allison Krause
  10. “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran

Music is a powerful tool that can switch off the stress response and in turn improve our emotional health. Whether one listens to, plays or sings doesn’t matter. All of it has proven benefits.

For more information on MSU Extension's mindfulness programs, please visit the Mindfulness for Better Living website.

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