Music can relieve pain — as long as you get to choose the song you’re hearing

LONDON — Some of the best music is inspired by tough break-ups and emotional pain, but fascinating new research finds control over the songs we hear is associated with feeling less physical pain. Scientists from Queen Mary University and University College Dublin report perceived control over musical choices displays a link with more acute pain relief.

Study participants who were under the impression that they were in control of their own tunes reported less pain than others who did not have musical independence.

Prior research reveals that music has the power to relieve pain, particularly chronic pain (lasting more than 12 weeks). However, the underlying mechanisms behind the relationship between pain and music remain unclear, especially when it comes to acute (short-term) pain.

The basic “features” that make up music, such as tempo or energy, don’t seem to be all that involved in pain relief. Instead, researchers say feeling like you’re in control of your own musical decisions appears to be key to pain relief. Earlier studies on these topics, however, have only used lab-based samples, which failed to investigate music’s impact on real-world, pre-existing acute pain.

Having control over the playlist leads to more pain relief

To better understand this topic, study authors asked 286 adults dealing with real, everyday acute pain to rate their pain both before and after listening to a musical track. Study authors ensured this track was carefully composed in two different versions of varying complexity.

The participants were randomly assigned to listen to either the low or high-complexity version of the song, while others were randomly given the impression that they had some control over the musical qualities of the song. This wasn’t actually true; everyone heard the same tune regardless of their input.

Ultimately, the experiment revealed participants who felt they had some control over their music experienced stronger pain relief than the other volunteers. According to a series of questionnaires, the group enjoyed both versions of the song, but study authors found no connection between music complexity and the amount of pain relief it provided. The team also notes that those who engaged more actively with music in their day-to-day life enjoyed even better pain relief linked to having a sense of control over their music.

All in all, researchers conclude that this work strongly suggests both music choice and engagement are essential to optimizing the pain-relieving benefits of listening to music.

“Now we know that the act of choosing music is an important part of the wellbeing benefits that we see from music listening. It’s likely that people listen more closely, or more carefully when they choose the music themselves,” study authors conclude in a media release.

The study is published in PLoS ONE.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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  1. Yes, this is true in my experience. It relieves the mental pain of being around my partner. Only deafness would work better but that would be terrible in other ways.

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