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Music as a pain reliever: The power of your playlist

A new study from Canada has shed light on the potential therapeutic power of music in pain management

Drawing from the universally acknowledged notion that music can be a profound emotional experience, researchers have taken this idea a step further. 

The team set out to investigate  how emotional connections with our favorite music can actually help reduce pain.

Pain perception

Over the years, research has consistently illustrated the relationship between music and reduced pain perception in humans. This phenomenon, termed hypoalgesia, is characterized by a decreased sensitivity to pain. 

It happens when the pain signals are disrupted during their transmission from the source to the point where our conscious mind identifies them as pain.

Focus of the study 

The experts wanted to pinpoint the kind of music that best aids in diminishing pain perception. The research was conducted at the Roy Pain Lab at McGill University. 

“In our study, we show that favorite music chosen by study participants has a much larger effect on acute thermal pain reduction than unfamiliar relaxing music,” said Darius Valevicius, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal

“We also found that emotional responses play a very strong role in predicting whether music will have an effect on pain.”

The power of music

For the investigation, study participants were exposed to thermal stimuli (similar to the sensation of a hot teacup being held against the skin). These sensations were paired with music excerpts, each lasting approximately seven minutes.

The participants reported having strongly reduced pain intensity and unpleasantness while listening to their favorite music compared to unfamiliar tracks or even just silence. 

“In addition, 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,” explained Valevicius. This points toward an emotional connection with the music.

Emotional themes

Venturing into the emotional landscape of music, the study further explored if specific musical themes could influence the pain-reducing effects. 

“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. 

An interesting factor that emerged during experimentation was the concept of musical chills – a physical manifestation of intense musical enjoyment. While the exact nature of musical chills remains a mystery, they seem to be key players in the process of blocking pain signals.

Future research

Despite their promising findings, the experts acknowledged certain limitations of the study. The duration for which participants listened to music samples could potentially impact results.

According to the researchers, questions which also need to be addressed in further research include if listening to favorite music is as effective with other, non-thermal pain stimuli, such as mechanical stimulation or chronic pain.

“Especially when it comes to the emotion themes in favorite music like moving/bittersweet, we are exploring new dimensions of the psychology of music listening that have not been well-studied, especially in the context of pain relief,” said Valevicius. “As a result, the data we have available is limited, although the preliminary results are fairly strong.”

The study is published in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research

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