Music is a painkiller. It activates reward regions of the brain that overlap with pain relief centers, and it helps us regulate emotions that correspond to pain perception.
But scientists still struggle to pinpoint what gives music this effect. In previous studies, musical properties like tempo, energy and how relaxing or arousing a tune is don’t impact pain relief. In a new study, researchers argue that the relief could come from letting people pick songs.
The team designed an online experiment where participants either listened to music with low or high complexity. Additionally, they gave some the impression that participants could choose their song. Groups with the perceived choice listened to four, two-second musical segments and chose one to listen to in full. However, all the clips came from the same tune, so they all eventually listened to the same song.
The researchers teamed up with a composer to write a piece that slowly intensified, then ended with a sense of release. They removed different melody components and percussion to simplify that track. That 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 entire song — either the complex or simple version. Afterwards, they re-rated their pain and well-being, reported their emotional response to the tune and quantified how deeply they engage with music in their everyday lives.
People who thought they chose the song had reduced pain intensity, but not unpleasantness, and people that regularly engaged with music benefited the most. Meanwhile, song complexity didn’t affect the outcome.
Choosing music gives people control over their environment, which could alleviate pain. That leads to feelings of wellness and decreased 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 that engage listeners who don’t listen to music much in their regular lives. This could involve incorporated visuals, for example, to capture listener attention.
The authors hope that the findings could be used to improve music therapy. It’s not enough just to play music in the background. To have the greatest impact, give patients the aux.