Music is a pain reliever. It activates reward areas of the brain that overlap with pain relief centers and helps us regulate emotions that correspond to the perception of pain.
But scientists are still struggling to determine what gives music this effect. In previous studies, musical properties such as tempo, energy, and how relaxing or arousing the melody was had no effect on pain relief. IN a new studythe researchers say relief may come from letting people choose songs.
The team created an online experiment in which participants listened to music of low or high complexity. They also left some with the impression that the contestants could choose their song. The perceived choice groups listened to four, two-second music segments and chose one to listen to in its entirety. However, all the clips come from the same tune, so everyone ends up listening to the same song.
Researchers team up with a composer to write a piece that slowly builds in intensity, then ends with a sense of release. They removed various melodic components and percussion to simplify this song. This yielded two pieces that shared the same musical parts but differed in complexity.
Before the test, participants rated their well-being, pain intensity, and pain unpleasantness. Then they listened to the whole song – the complex or the simple version. They then reassessed their pain and well-being, reported their emotional response to the melody, and quantified how deeply they engaged with the music in their daily lives.
People who thought they chose the song had reduced pain intensity, but not unpleasantness, and people who regularly engaged in music benefited the most. Meanwhile, the complexity of the song did not affect the result.
Music choices give people control over their environment, which can ease pain. This leads to a feeling of well-being and a reduced perception of pain, the authors write. The findings also highlight the importance of musical absorption—the feeling of getting lost in a song and losing physical awareness.
In the future, the team hopes to develop strategies to engage listeners who don’t listen to much music in their regular lives. This may include embedded visuals, for example to grab the listener’s attention.
The authors hope that the findings can be used to improve music therapy. It’s not enough to just play music in the background. For the greatest impact, give patients the help.