A woman listening to music.

Up Next on the Playlist: Pain Reduction

Our favourite songs can be deeply moving emotional experiences. But those same tunes can be helpful in dealing with physical pain too.


Listening to your favourite songs may do more than just affect your emotional state — according to new research, our favourite music can help us deal with physical pain, too. The study, which investigated how music impacts pain perception, found that our favourite songs can actually reduce the level of pain we feel.

The research was led by Darius Valevicius, a doctoral student at the Université de Montréal, and published in Frontiers in Pain Research.

Music is powerful: it can impact our emotions and reduce our levels of stress and anxiety. It’s also recently been prescribed for patients with Alzheimer’s and used to prevent adverse drug effects. Now, the researchers behind the study were interested in learning whether music can be beneficial for physical pain, too.

To learn more, they carried out a study in which participants were exposed to a moderately painful physical stimulus — the equivalent of holding a hot teacup against their skin. Participants then listened to either their favourite music, an unfamiliar relaxing song, or scrambled noises for seven minutes. Afterwards, participants were asked about their perception of the painful stimulus.

The researchers found that participants listening to their favourite songs reported strongly reduced pain intensity compared to those listening to unfamiliar relaxing melodies or scrambled noises.

“[Favourite] music chosen by study participants has a much larger effect on acute thermal pain reduction than unfamiliar relaxing music,” Valevicius said in a press release.

“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 [pain reduction].”

The researchers also investigated whether particular musical themes had different impacts — for example, whether happy music might affect pain perception differently than bittersweet music.

Interestingly, music that was categorized as moving or bittersweet resulted in the greatest reductions in pain intensity. The researchers believe that this was driven by a more intense enjoyment of the music, as well as greater levels of musical “chills”: a neurophysiological process that can manifest as goosebumps or a shivering sensation.

While there are additional factors to research, these results could be used to help patients in the future. So next time you feel pain, try turning on your favourite music — it might be just what the doctor ordered!

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Emily Deibert is a PhD student in the Department of Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto with a passion for science outreach and communication. She earned her HBSc (Astronomy, English, and Mathematics) at the University of Toronto. She is excited about turning scientific research into stories and sharing these stories with the public.