Seeking Relief from Stress? Let Music be your Soothing Companion!
Updated: Jun 30
Many people experience the effects of stress and anxiety on a daily basis and turn to various means such as hobbies and physical activity to relieve their burdens. According to the CDC in 2022, “more than 32 percent of adults reported having symptoms of anxiety or depression in the last two weeks” . With plenty of potential stressors in our lives of school, work, and relationships, it is essential to find ways to cope with pressure. One of the most common and accessible means that people use to unwind is listening to their favorite artists. Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), a 2011 study found that music “can arouse feelings of euphoria and craving, similar to tangible rewards that involve the striatal dopaminergic system”. The body releases the hormone dopamine when listening to music, producing the same happy response we get when eating our favorite food or having fun with friends. However, this raises questions: Is music one of the most effective ways to lower stress levels? If so, what type of music should I listen to when I am stressed?
Anxiety is characterized by feelings of tension and fear accompanied by physical changes such as shortness of breath and nausea. Although these symptoms may not be severe enough to be characterized as a medical disorder, they are still disruptive to daily life. A 2001 study using five female and five male students at McGill University found that the students reported experiencing “chills” in response to music and that music is effective in relieving anxiety compared to the control group . It linked the biological response of the parts of the brain involved with reward and emotion, such as the amygdala and the midbrain, and music’s “euphoria inducing” effect. All of the pieces used were classical music, Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3 in D Minor, Opus 30, Intermezzo Adagio and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which prevented any emotional responses that were based on lyrics. The researchers analyzed positron emission tomography (PET) scans and found a correlation between increased chill intensity ratings and playing the participant’s self-selected music. Does this suggest that the type of music that most effectively reduces stress could vary based on the individual?
Classical and Relaxing Music
In one particular study conducted in 2007, it was found that listening to classical or relaxing music often resulted in a reduction in “anger, anxiety, and sympathetic nervous system arousal, and increased relaxation compared to those who sit in silence or listen to heavy metal music” . The study included fifteen males and forty-one females given a stressful test and then their responses to different types of music were observed. Subjects were asked to rate their relaxation level on a scale of 1 to 7 using the Likert-type scale and complete a State-Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) form and an anger scale. The researchers found that participants who listened to self-selected and classical music experienced more significant reductions in heart rate and reported lower state anxiety ratings compared to those who listened to other genres such as heavy metal and silence. This research suggests that listening to classical music and self-selected music was significant in reducing stress, rather than other styles of music. In the modern-day setting, it is not unusual for individuals with high levels of stress and anxiety to turn to pharmacological therapies like synthetic drugs, however, the benefits of classical music are free or nearly free and easily accessible to unwind.
15 Minutes of Music
Another study, involving forty-six participants, measured the emotional response before and after 15 minutes of listening to various genres such as Pop, Western Classical, Persian Traditional, Silence, and Hard Rock . The participants ranged from eighteen to twenty-two year olds who listened to an average of 116.09 minutes of music. The study found none of the genres tried had any better relaxing effect than silence. This study which contrasts the previous sources mentioned above, suggests that classical music has varying levels of effectiveness depending on the individual and that other forms of music can produce relaxing sensations as well. The analysis by Lu et al.  of most studies done until 2020 found that from the thirty-two studies done beneficial effects of music were recorded in studies involving an average of 7.5 sessions of music, with each session between 50 - 60 minutes long.
Most studies suggest that classical music can reduce stress and anxiety levels, however, some findings report that self-selected music can also be just as effective. Music is a cost-effective and accessible way to relieve stress rather than investing in expensive pharmaceuticals and therapies, however, the duration and frequency of listening to music are likely to impact the advantages experienced.
In essence, whenever you feel overwhelmed indulge in the pleasure of listening to music that brings you joy, and don’t forget to do it often!
Written by Dory Kawauchi and Edited by Aldrin V. Gomes, PhD
1. Center for Disease Control (2022). Reduce Stress in 10 Minutes and Improve Your Well-Being. [Accessed June 27, 2023].
2. Salimpoor, V.N., Benovoy, M., Larcher, K., Dagher, A., and Zatorre, R.J. (2011). Anatomically distinct dopamine release during anticipation and experience of peak emotion to music. Nat. Neurosci. 14, 257–262.
3. Blood, A.J., and Zatorre, R.J. (2001). Intensely pleasurable responses to music correlate with activity in brain regions implicated in reward and emotion. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA 98, 11818–11823.
4. Lu, G., Jia, R., Liang, D., Yu, J., Wu, Z., and Chen, C. (2021). Effects of music therapy on anxiety: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychiatry Res. 304, 114137.
5. Malakoutikhah, A., Dehghan, M., Ghonchehpoorc, A., Parandeh Afshar, P., and Honarmand, A. (2020). The effect of different genres of music and silence on relaxation and anxiety: A randomized controlled trial. Explore (NY) 16, 376–381.