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  • Writer's pictureTanisa Goyal

Can music really reduce anxiety?

Have you ever listened to “Weightless” by Marconi Union? It is “the world’s most relaxing song,” (Passman, 2017) and studies have shown that it reduces listeners’ blood pressures, stress levels and heart rates. One researcher found that the song reduced listeners’ anxiety levels by 65%! (Curtin, 2017). Who would’ve thought that this one song had that much power to tackle anxiety and stress?

Music is a powerful mood regulator, promoting relaxation and reducing anxiety for many people. The human brain and nervous system are hardwired to respond to the composition of different songs, whether that may be the rhythm and tune, or just the repetition within it. (Harvard publishing, 2011). Many professionals believe that it can enhance human health and performance in many ways.

Let’s begin exploring this by understanding how our brains interpret music. Firstly, music reaches our ears as sound waves. The ear canal funnels these waves to our eardrums, which vibrate as the waves hit them. These vibrations travel along small bones in the middle ear until they reach the stapes (the third bone in the sequence), which is connected to the cochlea. The cochlea itself is filled with fluid that surrounds over 10,000 cilia (hair-like cells). As the vibrations pass through the cochlea, they are converted into fluid waves, which in turn induce a swaying movement in the cilia. As a result, neurotransmitters are released from the cells, which work to activate the auditory nerve. This then sends electrical signals to the auditory cortex in the temporal lobe.

The Human Ear (Image Credit: The Kennedy Center)

It is a well-known fact that music has a variety of different components. The same can be said for our brains. Different properties of music are received and processed by these different sections of the brain. For example, a small section of the right side of the temporal lobe is responsible for interpreting pitch, which leads to understanding melody, chords, and harmony. The cerebellum is responsible for decoding rhythm. The frontal lobes decipher the emotional content of the song. Some music can even simulate the brain’s reward center.

The Human Ear (Image Credit: WebMD)

Now, let’s understand what anxiety is. Anxiety itself can be defined as a feeling of unease, worry, or fear, with different levels of severity (NHS, n.d.). Whilst everyone has most likely experienced this at some stage in their lifetime, some struggle with it for extended periods of time, almost every day. The US Department of Health and Human Services has distinguished five different anxiety disorders, namely Generalised Anxiety Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Panic Disorder, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and Social Anxiety Disorder. Anxiety and anxiety disorders can both result in mild to severe physiological, cognitive and behavioural responses (Seinfeld et al., 2015).

Music therapies for stress and anxiety reduction have been tested in several experimental studies, across a wide range of varying settings, including hospitals, dental clinics, the workplace, etc (Seinfeld et al., 2015). In a 2013 study, participants were separated into three groups with different auditory stimulation levels: one with “relaxing” music, another with the sound of rippling water, and the rest with no sound or music exposure. They were then introduced to a stressor. The researchers tested salivary cortisol and salivary alpha-amylase, as well as heart rate, respiratory sinus arrhythmia and subjective stress and anxiety perceptions repeatedly. The results of this biological and psychosocial stress test revealed that those who had listened to music recovered more quickly after being exposed to the stressor. (Thoma et al., 2013) Controlled clinical trials have shown that those who were exposed to calming music before undergoing medical procedures were found to have reduced levels of anxiety and less need for sedatives. During procedures, they experienced less discomfort, and during recovery, used less pain-relieving opioids. (Harvard Publishing, 2016). Another study found that music therapy was an effective approach in clinical psychiatry for Generalised Anxiety Disorder (Gutiérrez & Camarena, 2015). The evidence is undeniable: music can indeed aid in reducing symptoms of anxiety.

Overall, music therapy has been shown to be an effective psychostimulant for inducing relaxation and reducing levels of stress and anxiety amongst listeners. Our brains receive and translate the different properties of the music we listen to in various ways to facilitate this, and as previous studies have established, these combine to reduce stress and anxiety in different circumstances.



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