you should listen to this music to feel less pain

A pleasant tune in the background or singing along to your favorite hits, music plays an important role in our lives. But it’s not just something we enjoy, it can also help us feel less pain. A cheap painkiller.

Canadian researchers have now investigated which type of music is most suitable for this and they discovered something remarkable. “The participants’ favorite music had a much greater effect on acute pain than unknown relaxing music,” says researcher Darius Valevicius of the McGill University. “We also discovered that the emotional response to music plays a very important role in reducing pain.”

Cup of tea against your skin
A pain response was induced in the participants using heat on the inside of the forearm, comparable to a hot cup of tea held against your skin: quite painful. They simultaneously heard music that lasted for about seven minutes. “We invited a number of healthy participants to our laboratory. There they heard all kinds of music, while we induced pain through controlled heat stimulation,” Valevicius explains. “The participants had to rate their pain and also different aspects of their emotional response to the music. We also had them answer questions about their favorite music and then categorized the answers.”

It turned out that their favorite music significantly reduced the pain and had a much greater effect than unknown, relaxing music or silence. “We also played mixed music. This is like music in every possible way, but without any meaningful structure. From this we can conclude that it is not just distraction or the presence of sound that makes the pain experience less intense,” Valevicius explains.

Goosebumps are good
How is that possible? “It appears that the intensity of the positive emotion reduces the unpleasantness of the pain. Goosebumps also seem to correlate with lower pain levels and usually occur at the height of music and are associated with music that a person deeply touches or finds very beautiful. Unfamiliar music may be pleasant, but in most cases it does not evoke such a strong response that it makes a difference,” says the researcher, who also comments on his study. “There is evidence that relaxing music does have an effect if someone listens to it for more than twenty minutes, so a relaxation mechanism may kick in if a person in pain hears music for longer.”

Music that touches you
The researchers then looked at whether it mattered what type of favorite music was listened to: uptempo and active, happy and cheerful, calm and relaxing or moving and bittersweet. And one type of music was indeed not the same as the other. “The effect on pain was 40 percent greater for the moving music, compared to other types of favorite music,” says Valevicius. “People enjoyed the moving music more intensely and got more goosebumps.”

Don’t relax but enjoy
Although it is not yet entirely clear how goosebumps caused by music work, it appears that there is a neurophysiological process that is effective in blocking pain signals. This feeling manifests itself not only as goosebumps, but also as shivers or tingling, for example. Either way, music that moves you works best if you want to reduce pain. “We were very surprised by the big difference between favorite music and relaxing music in pain reduction. It appears that approaches based on relaxation or distraction are not nearly as effective as the intense positive emotions that music can create. But we were also interested in the separation between pleasure on the one hand and goosebumps on the other by music when it comes to pain reduction, because this says something about the underlying mechanisms,” the researcher explains.

To find out more about the relationship between music and pain, the researchers want to put participants under the scanner. “To see what happens in the brain during pain reduction by music and during the goosebumps reaction. Especially when it comes to emotional themes in favorite music, such as ‘moving and bittersweet’, we discover new dimensions in the psychology of music listening that have not yet been well studied, especially in terms of pain reduction,” he concludes.