The Science of Using Music to Relieve Stress
Music is powerful.
Think back on the epic-ness of experiencing your favorite bands in concert, or the nostalgia of listening to an album you revered in high school. Or stifling the urge to dance to your favorite song while shopping. Nothing’s quite as validating as your tunes echoing through the food court or down the baked goods aisle. Music speaks to the soul. That’s part of how music is calming and can help you relax, pump you up during a run, or even help you focus at work or school.
Thanks to science, this emotional range isn’t just anecdotal. Listening to music comes with tangible benefits, including a direct correlation between music and stress relief. Understanding the chemical reactions in your brain relating to sound is key to unlocking the calming magic of music. Even if you already know how awesomely powerful music can be, now you can explain it with sound science.
How Sound Harmonizes with Your Mood
Sound waves affect hearing, one of your five primary senses (scientifically called audition). Hearing is intrinsically linked to many of your body’s physiological reactions. Your ear drums pick up sound from a variety of sources, like birds chirping, a friend’s voice through a cell phone, the chime of an oven timer, or your amped-up workout playlist. The brain converts these sound waves into electrochemical nerve signals—and this is where sound really strikes a chord.
Sharp, loud noises trigger your brain to release cortisol, increasing your heart rate and priming the fight-or-flight response. The sound of a familiar or foreign voice will set off a different chemical cascade, and your brain and body respond accordingly. And though it used to be vital to survival, such a well-developed auditory system is now far more useful for communication. With the concerns of humanity shifting from wildlife to the workweek, your ears are tuned less to leopards and more to Def Leppard.
So, how does music reduce stress? Scientific evidence shows music affects your body like any other sound. Rhythms, beats, and audio samples often imitate nature, and the power of voice carries through both analog and digital means. Your ears signal your brain to produce dopamine, whether it’s Johnny Cash crooning or a favorite uncle cracking another bad joke.
Depending on the track, songs can impact:
- dopamine, DHEA, cortisol, and other hormone levels
- heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure
- the psychobiological stress system
- perceived stress levels and mood
- post-task mental and physical revitalization
- alertness and energy levels
With such an array of physical and chemical effects, it’s no wonder there’s a strong correlation between music and stress relief. Many of these same chemicals are linked to emotion, making music another sure way to master your mood.
Beat Stress with BPM—Beats Per Minute
Music can reduce stress and positively affect your body in a variety of ways. You may find yourself asking, “Is this true of all music?” “Does the scale make a difference?” And what if you can’t stand classical compositions—will they still help you focus?
As it turns out, taste has a lot to do with it. The same piece of music affects listeners differently based on listening tendencies, what they grew up rocking, and various attachments to the song. Perception is a powerful indicator for how sound will affect an individual. This is quite similar to how your experiences shape the unique wiring of your brain. So, if you don’t like folk music, there’s no shame in staying away from twangy ensembles.
Before you jump into how beats per minute (BPM) impact stress, there are other predictors to determine how a song may affect you—whether it’s funky or flat, good for studying, or a party anthem. Major tones are often associated with happy, predictable, poppy songs, while minor tones seem to be sad, more complex, and dissonant. This carries over to speech and vocals, too. As a fun experiment, search for your favorite upbeat song in minor on YouTube and hear the mood flip. Take on Me by A-Ha sounds like an unreleased act from Phantom of the Opera.
A song’s tempo has a lot to do with its potential stress-busting effects. Every piece of music is measured by beats per minute (BPM). Songs range from a very slow 35–45 BPM up to a heart-fluttering 200 BPM. For reference, the average popular song pulses around 116 BPM, and 120 is often considered the sweet spot for pop. You can find any song’s BPM through a quick online search, or through a free service like SongBPM.com.
Studies show listening to music you can’t stand is a recipe for disaster at any tempo. But listen to an artist or album you love, and you’ll experience the calming powers of sound. The slower a song, the more likely you are to experience deeper breathing, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. Faster music has the opposite effect—pumping up your vitals and propelling you to move.
Speaking of music you love, set aside time this week to ignore your social feeds, close your eyes, and enjoy a deep listen of a favorite album. Purposeful listening lets you experience every track as the artist intended, and it’s a great way to add a meditative moment to your day.
Measurements for Every Occasion—Music to Relieve Stress or Pump You Up
The inextricable link between music and stress relief lets you use sound to create a productive rhythm for each part of your day. Whether preparing for a test, exercise circuit, or bedtime—all it takes is the right range of BPMs.
- Rise and shine. Many people have their favorite dance-worthy song set as their alarm—and they’re doing morning right. Aim for a bright and poppy tune, around the 120 BPM mark, to wake up on the right side of the bed every day.
- Sweat it out. Nothing starts the blood pumping like a custom workout playlist. Exercise routines vary in intensity and time, so curate a range of heavier, upbeat tracks that range between 120-160 BPM. More motion = more beats.
- Eco-commute. The average person walks at a convenient 120 steps per minute. Jamming music in this range will help you keep pace through hills and road bumps. Pedaling a bicycle calls for the same pace—unless you’re fighting the wind, which means upwards of 160–180 BPM.
- In the zone. Like musical tastes, finding the creative flow state varies from person to person. Instrumental music around 50–80 BPM is an ideal range for studying, working, or reading. Your brain falls into a productive rhythm in this range.
- Sauté success. Once again, the trusty 120 BPM is recommended for a perfectly paced dining experience—any faster and you’ll be rushing to chow down. The true key to pairing food with music is context. Find flavorful tracks to fit the mood of the meal.
- Breathe deep. Like the creative flow, mellow tunes around 50–80 BPMs can induce a meditative state. Find instrumental music that relaxes you. Clear your mind and focus on measured breathing to slow down your thoughts.
- Sweet dreams. Music around 60 BPM can induce alpha brainwaves—ideal for relaxation and sleep after listening for 45 minutes or so. Decompress with the right soundtracks to enjoy stress-free slumber.
More Stress-Relieving Solutions
Find harmony in stressful moments with both quick fixes and long-term solutions:
- Mindfulness through meditation provides fast relief.
- Stepping outside for even 20 minutes can trigger many beneficial physiological reactions.
- Expressing gratitude increases feelings of happiness to put problems in perspective.
- Exercise is one of the best ways to work out anxiety and temporarily lower blood pressure post-workout. Always bring your music library along for the circuit.
Healthy habits also play a significant role in how you feel, think, and perform:
- Start each day with a healthy breakfast for a positively productive morning.
- Consistent, quality sleep is deeply tied to your emotional state. Good sleep hygiene is crucial to minimize daily stress.
- Learning to play an instrument is challenging, but the brain benefits are incredible.
- Immersing yourself in any hobby helps to center the mind.
Some amount of stress can be productive, such as the nudge of anxiety prompting you to study for a concerto or attend band practice. But if you find yourself chronically stressed, consult with your trusted health-care provider and mental-health advocate.
More Than a Feeling
Life has its highs and lows, but no matter what happens, you can always turn to a favorite tune to brighten up the moment, finding stress relief through music. Spend time creating your own “stress less” playlist so you always have tracks to turn to for some extra feel-goods. You can even make collaborative playlists with friends, a true win-win—discovering awesome new music and maintaining social connections, which are key indicators of lifelong health.
So, next time you’re debating if those concert tickets are really worth the price, whether you can make the time to go, or if it’s worth the drive—whatever the excuse—now, you can justify it with science. Just make sure you pop in earplugs before you rock on.