Why choosing music can help the pain go away

Study finds having control over musical choices enhances benefits of pain relief

Elderly Lady In Her Seventies Listens To Music With Headphones Moving Her Arms In The Air. Getty Images
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Selecting a tune to play could help ease pain, a study has found.

Music therapy has been known to reduce feelings of pain, especially those suffering with long-term problems.

But new research suggests that controlling what is playing, rather than any particular kind of music, could be even more helpful.

“Basic musical features, such as tempo or energy, seem to be less important for pain relief; instead, feeling able to make decisions about the music may be key for pain relief,” the researchers wrote in the journal Plos One.

They found that people who were given the impression that they had control over the music they heard experienced more pain relief than people who were not given such control.

Almost 300 adults who suffer from acute pain were asked to rate their pain before and after listening to different versions of a specially composed song called All of us, created for the study by Australian multi instrumentalist and composer Anatole.

Some were randomly selected to be given the impression that they had some control over the musical qualities of the track, although they heard the same track regardless of their choice.

The researchers found that participants who felt they had control over the music experienced greater relief in the intensity of their pain. It did not matter which version they were listening to.

Those who were regular music listeners experienced even greater pain-relief benefits from having a sense of control over the song. On a scale of 1-100, pain scores dropped by up to 20 points.

Dr Claire Howlin of Queen Mary University of London, who led the study alongside colleagues from University College Dublin, told The National: “The initial distraction from music is important for pain relief; additional benefits are seen when people find the music interesting or personally meaningful.”

The authors wrote: “Now we know that the act of choosing music is an important part of the well-being benefits that we see from music listening. It’s likely that people listen more closely, or more carefully when they choose the music themselves.”

A previous study published in The Lancet medical journal showed that listening to music can significantly reduce pain and anxiety before, during or after a surgical procedure. The study, involving almost 7,000 patients, examined the effect of music compared with standard care or other non-drug interventions, such as massage and relaxation, on post-operative recovery.

Other studies have shown pain relief may occur with the release of endorphins, or changes in catecholamine levels, or as patients are distracted by memories away from their pain.

Updated: August 03, 2022, 7:08 PM
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