Think back on the epic-ness of experiencing your favorite bands in concert, or the nostalgia of listening to an album you revered in high school. Or stifling the urge to dance to your favorite song while shopping. Nothing’s quite as validating as your tunes echoing through the food court or down the baked goods aisle. Music speaks to the soul. That’s part of how music is calming and can help you relax, pump you up during a run, or even help you focus at work or school.
Thanks to science, this emotional range isn’t just anecdotal. Listening to music comes with tangible benefits, including a direct correlation between music and stress relief. Understanding the chemical reactions in your brain relating to sound is key to unlocking the calming magic of music. Even if you already know how awesomely powerful music can be, now you can explain it with sound science.
How Sound Harmonizes with Your Mood
Sound waves affect hearing, one of your five primary senses (scientifically called audition). Hearing is intrinsically linked to many of your body’s physiological reactions. Your ear drums pick up sound from a variety of sources, like birds chirping, a friend’s voice through a cell phone, the chime of an oven timer, or your amped-up workout playlist. The brain converts these sound waves into electrochemical nerve signals—and this is where sound really strikes a chord.
Sharp, loud noises trigger your brain to release cortisol, increasing your heart rate and priming the fight-or-flight response. The sound of a familiar or foreign voice will set off a different chemical cascade, and your brain and body respond accordingly. And though it used to be vital to survival, such a well-developed auditory system is now far more useful for communication. With the concerns of humanity shifting from wildlife to the workweek, your ears are tuned less to leopards and more to Def Leppard.
So, how does music reduce stress? Scientific evidence shows music affects your body like any other sound. Rhythms, beats, and audio samples often imitate nature, and the power of voice carries through both analog and digital means. Your ears signal your brain to produce dopamine, whether it’s Johnny Cash crooning or a favorite uncle cracking another bad joke.
Depending on the track, songs can impact:
- dopamine, DHEA, cortisol, and other hormone levels
- heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure
- the psychobiological stress system
- perceived stress levels and mood
- post-task mental and physical revitalization
- alertness and energy levels
With such an array of physical and chemical effects, it’s no wonder there’s a strong correlation between music and stress relief. Many of these same chemicals are linked to emotion, making music another sure way to master your mood.
Beat Stress with BPM—Beats Per Minute
Music can reduce stress and positively affect your body in a variety of ways. You may find yourself asking, “Is this true of all music?” “Does the scale make a difference?” And what if you can’t stand classical compositions—will they still help you focus?
As it turns out, taste has a lot to do with it. The same piece of music affects listeners differently based on listening tendencies, what they grew up rocking, and various attachments to the song. Perception is a powerful indicator for how sound will affect an individual. This is quite similar to how your experiences shape the unique wiring of your brain. So, if you don’t like folk music, there’s no shame in staying away from twangy ensembles.
Before you jump into how beats per minute (BPM) impact stress, there are other predictors to determine how a song may affect you—whether it’s funky or flat, good for studying, or a party anthem. Major tones are often associated with happy, predictable, poppy songs, while minor tones seem to be sad, more complex, and dissonant. This carries over to speech and vocals, too. As a fun experiment, search for your favorite upbeat song in minor on YouTube and hear the mood flip. Take on Me by A-Ha sounds like an unreleased act from Phantom of the Opera.
A song’s tempo has a lot to do with its potential stress-busting effects. Every piece of music is measured by beats per minute (BPM). Songs range from a very slow 35–45 BPM up to a heart-fluttering 200 BPM. For reference, the average popular song pulses around 116 BPM, and 120 is often considered the sweet spot for pop. You can find any song’s BPM through a quick online search, or through a free service like SongBPM.com.
Studies show listening to music you can’t stand is a recipe for disaster at any tempo. But listen to an artist or album you love, and you’ll experience the calming powers of sound. The slower a song, the more likely you are to experience deeper breathing, lower blood pressure, and a lower heart rate. Faster music has the opposite effect—pumping up your vitals and propelling you to move.
Speaking of music you love, set aside time this week to ignore your social feeds, close your eyes, and enjoy a deep listen of a favorite album. Purposeful listening lets you experience every track as the artist intended, and it’s a great way to add a meditative moment to your day. Music can affect the body in many health-promoting ways, which is the basis for a growing field known as music therapy. However, you can use music in your daily life and achieve many stress relief benefits on your own.
One of the great benefits of music as a stress reliever is that it can be used while you conduct your regular activities so it really doesn’t take time away from your busy schedule. Music provides a wonderful backdrop for your life and you can find increased enjoyment from what you’re doing while reducing stress from your day. Put together a custom playlist for each of these activities and you may soon notice a significant decrease in stress.
When Getting Ready in the Morning
You can wake yourself up with music and start your day feeling great. By selecting the right music, you can set the tone for a lower-stress day. Classical or instrumental music can help you wake up while keeping you calm and focused. If you have a big, busy day ahead that requires extra energy, try something that’s upbeat and makes you want to dance and smile.
During a Commute
Put an end to road rage by playing your favorite music in the car.
- It can relieve some of the tension you feel from the commute itself and the day so far.
- It can help you feel less like you’re wasting time in traffic and more like you’re having some nice time to yourself.
- It can take your mind off of all that you need to get done once you reach your destination. You will arrive less stressed and more prepared to take on what awaits you.
Try switching to a classical station when you are really stressed out. The soothing rhythms and sounds can calm you down and make your commute smoother.
Good nutrition is an important part of a healthy lifestyle and it can actually keep your stress level down. Eating at home is a great way to ensure healthy meals and less expensive, but many people find themselves too tired to cook once they get home. If you put on some smooth jazz or a similar genre of music that you enjoy, cooking becomes a fun activity rather than a chore. You will likely find yourself relaxed and in a better frame of mind once dinner starts, which can enable you to savor your dinner and your company as you eat.
Music can also be a helper as you’re eating your meal. Soothing music can trigger the relaxation response, which can lower cortisol levels, making it easier to digest food. Studies have shown that classical music, in particular, can help you eat less, digest better and enjoy your food more1.
Keeping a simple, organized home can really help to cut down on your stress level, but cleaning itself is a chore that many busy people don’t have the energy to face after a long day. However, if you throw on some energetic music (hip-hop or pop, for example) you can raise your energy level and have fun as you clean.
If you tell yourself that you only need to clean for a certain amount of songs and then you can be done, you may work more efficiently. Who knows, you may even come to look forward to doing the job.
When Paying Bills
We all need to pay bills, but the job doesn’t always take a high degree of concentration. Playing music while you write your checks can help take your mind off of financial stress you may be feeling and make the task more enjoyable.
Getting enough sleep is important for proper functioning, and getting enough sleep can help you handle stress better. Unfortunately, stress can also interfere with sleep in several ways. Playing music as you drift off is one way to counteract the effects of stress by taking your mind off what’s stressing you. Music can help slow down your breathing and soothing your mind.