By: Theresa Tingey
As busy students, stress is a huge part of daily life. Many of us turn to music as one of the easiest and best ways to relieve stress after a particularly difficult midterm or exam. Which types of music are especially effective for mediating stress and how exactly music interacts with the brain are active areas of research. Specifically, many scientists have tested the effects of various types of music on college-aged students, after inducing stress, by examining levels of blood hormones and self-perceived emotional scales. The results of these studies can inform students on how to best reduce anxiety through music listening.
One study performed by Smith and Joyce published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2004 had 63 college students set aside 28 minutes each day for three days to listen to either Mozart, new age music or read a selection of popular magazines. The students then filled out questionnaires each day to measure their stress, worry and negative emotions. By the third day, the group assigned to listen to Mozart experienced the greatest relaxation and least stress, while the group listening to New Age music showed only a slight reduction in stress and the magazine readers had the least improvement in anxiety levels.
Another study performed in 2001 by Knight and Rickard asked students to prepare for a stressful oral presentation while either listening to Pachelbel’s Canon in D major, or in silence. The heart rate, subjective anxiety, blood pressure and cortisol levels were measured for each participant before and after the presentations to gauge their stress responses. Students who listened to the classical music while preparing for their presentation showed a greater reduction in stress compared to the group who prepared in silence.
Calming music has also been shown to enhance immune responses and reduce pain perception. In 2003, Eri Hirokawa of the Tokai Women’s University observed that music identified as ‘highly uplifting’ by participants boosted the function of important immune cells, such as T cells and natural killer cells, when listened to for twenty minutes after a stressful cognitive test compared to those who sat in silence. In addition, in their study published in the Journal of Music Therapy in 2006, Mitchell and MacDonald saw that students were able to tolerate a painful stimulus of holding their hands in cold water for longer when listening to music selections that they had chosen, compared to white noise or music deemed ‘relaxing’ by the experimenters.
This last study brings to question whether or not the music we choose to listen to is better for relaxation than classical or new age music. According to a review published by Krout in a 2007 publication of The Arts and Psychotherapy, music selected as relaxing by researchers generally has a greater relaxing effect than the music preferred by the listener, possibly because the listener can become distracted and emotionally aroused by the music they’re used to. However, Krout also noted that the more a person is exposed to a certain type of music, the greater its stress-reducing effect. Further, he suggests that listening to music of a slow and stable tempo, low volume, and simple harmonic cord progressions, such as those often found in classical music, for 20 to 30 minutes at a time is most beneficial for inducing relaxation through activating the parasympathetic nervous system. Another tip Krout gives is to listen to music that comes with guided meditation or breathing methods, as a combination of music and whole-body relaxation techniques have been found most effective for reducing stress.
In any case, whether you want to come home to the soothing sounds of Mozart or dance away your stress to your favourite upbeat tunes, music can provide a fun and effective way to melt away the stress of the day.