Tuning to Stress

Music has a great power on both the emotions and the body. A power to move us, to calm us or to arouse us.

Faster music can make us feel more alert and concentrate better. Upbeat music can make us feel more optimistic and positive about life. A slower tempo can quiet our minds and relax our muscles, making us feel soothed while releasing the stress of the day. Music is effective for relaxation and stress management.

But how does it work? And why does it work?


Music, uniquely among the arts, is both completely abstract and profoundly emotional. It has no power to represent anything particular or external, but it has a unique power to express inner states or feelings. Music can pierce the heart directly; it needs no mediation.
Oliver Sacks, Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain

Musicophilia is one of the most famous books from British Neurologist and author Oliver Sacks. The book is full of intriguing stories that explore our deep relationship with music. Stories about patients with Alzheimer’s disease for whom music “restored them to themselves”. People with aphasia who can be taught to speak again through singing. But also stories about previously healthy people who began to have “musical hallucinations”, blasted by intrusive ghostly music; or others who had seizures in response to music. Sacks calls this “musicogenic epilepsy” — which, intriguingly, can be selective. One woman, for instance, “had seizures only in response to ‘modern, dissonant music,’ never in response to classical or romantic music” — and her husband was a composer of the type of music that gave her seizures.

All these stories give us a hint of the mysterious power of music.

Music acts directly on the brain

Researchers at Stanford University have said that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.” They noted that music is something that almost anybody can access and makes it an easy stress reduction tool.

Current findings indicate that music around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronize with the beat causing alpha brainwaves (frequencies from 8–14 hertz or cycles per second). This alpha brainwave is what is present when we are relaxed and conscious. To induce sleep (a delta brainwave of 5 hertz), a person may need to devote at least 45 minutes, in a relaxed position, listening to calming music. You get bonus points for finding music at 432 Hz (tuned with the Universe).

All right, so what does this mean?

Since with music we are rarely told the beats per minute, what does this mean concretely? What type of music reduces stress the best? A bit surprising is that Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed-instruments, drums, and flutes are very effective at relaxing the mind even when played moderately loud. Sounds of rain, thunder, and nature sounds may also be relaxing particularly when mixed with other music, such as light jazz, classical (the “largo” movement), and easy listening music.

But as with most things, it is also a matter of personal tastes. You must first like the music being played, and then it must relax you. Forcing yourself to listen to relaxation music that irritates you can create tension, not reduce it. If that happens, try looking for alternatives.

To conclude, one last question: what if we need not to relax?

Ambient noise can improve creativity

Even though music is a great tool to relax, sometimes we need to power ourselves through our to-do lists. In this cases, people usually like to pump up the tunes. However, loud music may not be the best option if we need to be creative.

An article published in the Journal of Consumer Research of the Oxford University Pressshows that even more than low noise levels, moderate noise levels and ambient noise is the best boost for creativity. And doesn’t put us off the way high levels of noise do.

The way this works is that moderate noise levels increase processing difficulty which promotes abstract processing, leading to higher creativity. In other words: when we struggle (just enough) to process things as we normally would, we resort to more creative approaches. In high noise levels, however, our creative thinking is impaired because we’re overwhelmed and struggle to process information efficiently.

Let’s put on some tunes now :-)

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