September 18, 2023
It’s widely known that music can have a significant impact on our moods and emotions. It’s why we cry at sad movies, blast upbeat songs when we need motivation, and indulge in breakup songs when we want to drown our sorrows.
One key area of mental wellbeing that music has been proven to help with is our stress levels. The Mental Health Foundation describes stress as being “our body’s response to pressure”, and “often triggered when we experience something new or unexpected that threatens our sense of self or when we feel we have little control over a situation”.
A study, also from the MHF, found that 74% of UK adults have felt so stressed at some point over the last year they felt overwhelmed or unable to cope. With stress impacting everything from our sleep, to relationships, to work, it’s a topic that needs much research and care given to how it’s handled. Alongside various other treatments and coping mechanisms, music has become an increasingly popular remedy for calming our minds and helping us manage stress.
How music can lower our stress levels
The right type of music can ease our stress levels by lowering cortisol and producing pleasurable neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin - commonly known as the “happy hormones”. Both listening to and making music/singing have been associated with decreases of physiological arousal, shown by a decrease in heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, researchers at Stanford University have said that "listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication", and that the fact that it is so accessible makes it a great stress reduction tool.
Music can also affect stress-related emotional states, such as subjective worry, anxiety, restlessness or nervousness. This is because music can modulate activity in brain structures that are known to be crucially involved in emotional processes. Neuroimaging studies on music and emotion have shown that music strongly influences the amygdala, a part of the limbic system, which is a section of the brain that plays a crucial role in the regulation of emotional processes by releasing endorphins. These neurotransmitters play a key role in enhancing a sense of well-being.
One study into ‘The Effect of Music on the Human Stress Response’ found that listening to music prior to a psychosocial stress test resulted in a considerably faster return to baseline cortisol (stress) levels once the task was complete. In comparison, those who listened to (a) the sound of rippling water or (b) no music took longer for their cortisol levels to reduce to normal. The researchers concluded that “listening to music prior to a standardized stressor predominantly affected the autonomic nervous system (in terms of a faster recovery), and to a lesser degree the endocrine and psychological stress response”.
The best type of music for managing stress
While fast tempo music can help to make us feel more alert, and songs with a heavy bassline can boost our confidence, slow tempo music is unsurprisingly most effective in making us feel more relaxed and easing stress. Songs with a tempo of 40-60 Beats Per Minute (BPM) are said to be most effective as a slow, steady rhythm provides stress reduction by altering body rhythms, such as heart rate. But there are many other qualities of music that make certain types particularly effective in reducing stress.
Startle Music Consultant, Magnus Linn, recommends that the most important characteristics of stress-relieving music are instrumentation (timbre), texture and structure.
With instrumentation, I’d recommend instruments (acoustic or electronic) that have well-rounded timbres and rich middle and low end frequencies. Instruments with harsh timbres and piercing high end frequencies can be highly arousing, which isn’t helpful in a stressful state. Spacious textures are important too, as they create room for our listening. Take a densely textured disco track, for example. These tracks are designed for intensity and do this through textural layering: strings, brass, drums, keyboard, bass, vocals etc. - not ideal for relieving stress. Simpler textures (maybe two to four parts) create an airiness that allows our minds to breathe. Lastly, songs built on repetition are effective in creating a meditative sound and being very immersive to the listener.
Genres that fit this brief for stress-reducing music well are ambient and minimalist music. This is also due to their lack (or minimal use) of vocals, which can be distracting rather than calming. This track by Anomalie is a perfect example of a minimalist song that meets all of our criteria. Take a minute to sit back, enjoy, and relax.
Music can be a great tool in creating some space for feelings of stress as it allows our minds to gently focus on something detached from our surroundings. It’s not only the type of music we listen to that’s important, but also how we listen to it.
Instead of listening to music passively, active listening can be powerful in re-focussing our minds. As a nice exercise, try to latch onto an element of the music, for example, a particular instrument or the bass line, and see where it goes.