Music Can Help You Relax (but Only If You Allow It)

The stress-relieving effects of music listening seem like common knowledge, despite the fact that there is very little empirical research on the mechanisms through which music alleviates stress. Also, many studies are conducted in laboratory settings that are quite far from the real-life situations in which people find relief from music listening. In a recent study published in Neuroendocrinology, researchers sought to explore the effects of music listening in everyday life¹. Results show that music listening lowered experienced stress levels in high-stress life situations, that effects were seen on the endocrine system as well as the autonomic nervous system, and that the intention behind music listening was key to its salutary effects.

In the study, 55 university students were followed during regular and high-stress periods of time. Exam week was chosen as the high-stress period and a regular week as the baseline, or control condition. The subjects were provided with music playing devices and asked to rate their stress levels as well as report their music listening several times a day via a short questionnaire. In addition, a little over half of the participants also provided saliva samples, which were used to determine levels of alpha-amylase and cortisol. Cortisol is a hormone used as a biomarker of stress and alpha-amylase is an enzyme marking stress-related changes in the activity of the autonomous nervous system.

The results of the study showed intriguing connections between the context and reasons for music listening, experience of stress as well as the physiological mechanisms related to stress:

“music listening correlated with a decrease in experienced stress — the more people listened to music, the less they reported feeling stressed. However, there was no connection between mere music listening and cortisol and alpha-amylase levels.”

However, if people reported that the reason for music listening was specifically relaxation, then in addition to lowered reported stress levels, cortisol levels also went down, indicating a physiological calming effect of music listening. The researchers however point out that as the most typical time of day reported for music listening was the evening, and as cortisol levels are naturally low in the evening, more research is needed to confirm this connection.

In total, the study showed how music listening in real life contexts influences perceived stress levels as well as the physiological mechanisms related to stress. Music may help you feel more relaxed, but if you want to take the effects to the level of physiology, you have to put some thought into it! The study elegantly shows how the health effects of music listening vary and depend on things like time of day, listening context, and intention. Future studies that take the exploration of the health benefits of music listening out of the lab and into the real world will reveal more about the complex and often highly individual mechanisms that make music medicine.

Written by Ketki Karanam, Co-Founder and Head of Science at Sync Project


  1. Alexandra Linneman, Beate Ditzen, Jana Strahler, Johanna M. Doerr, Urs M. Nater. Music listening as a means of stress reduction in daily life. Psychoneuroendocrinology, Volume 60 , 82–90 doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2015.06.008

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