Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The calming effect of music

Simone Shane's picture

A few weeks ago I was doing a project on maternal separation anxiety for another course when I came upon a very interesting article that outlined a study conducted with premature infants in neonatal intensive care units (NICU) and their mothers. All mothers participated in kangaroo care, an intervention program for hospital bound infants where mothers and infants have skin-to-skin contact, whereas only half listened to soothing music concurrently. Those mother-infant dyads listening to music reaped great benefits: the mothers’ separation anxiety when leaving her child, as well as general trait anxiety, decreased while the infants had more quiet sleep and cried less (1). Music seemed to help sooth both the mother and child during a very anxious time.

Music is undeniably relaxing. As I child, I was absolutely unable to fall asleep unless there was a tape of my favorite lullabies set to play in my room and even now I often turn up Erik Satie’s Gnosiennes and Gymnopedies after a difficult day (for a sample of this music: What about music is so soothing? How is it able to make a stress-ridden person tranquil? How does music affect our brain?

It turns out that music is a relatively common and very traditional therapy used to achieve a calmer state of being. One mental health clinician, who is also an experienced music therapist, uses music to help her patients stir up emotional images and claims that the music “The vibration in music releases tension in the cells and organs,” thus creating a feeling of relief (2). One musical group has dedicated its time to playing in nursing and convalescent homes and cite that they have observed their music help the elderly people living there achieve a feeling of calm (3). Dentists and surgeons also cleverly use music to decrease their patients’ worry and increase their pain threshold: the type of music playing in the elevator and lobby are not accidental and the type of music played during surgery prep is considered part of the prep itself (2). Biblical David played his harp to assist the mental troubles of king Saul (4) and later King George commissioned similar musical therapy to aid in stress reduction (5).

When first thinking of music as calming, my first guess was that it serves as a distraction from whatever it is that is currently making you anxious or upset. However, if this were the case, either all music would have the same anxiety reducing effect or louder, more attention grabbing music would be the most affective. However, this is not the case. Hard rock and heavy metal music can in fact have adverse effects on EEG patterns. Yet just because a certain genre of music is louder or more upbeat does not necessarily mean that is not calming, as Celtic and Native American music, as well as loud drumming, were found relaxing. On the other had, some music traditionally created for meditation was just as bad as hard rock or heavy metal. (4) In one study, only music that gave the participant “the chills” had any effect on brain activation as recorded by PET scans. What makes some music more soothing than others? It seems as though rhythm plays a large role. Choosing music with a rhythm slower than your natural heart rate (72 beats per minute) is useful to many people, while familiar or cyclical music has also been found to have great benefits (4).

Perhaps music is relaxing due to the fact that it has been linked to reduced pain perception (6). Could pain reduction be the third variable mediating the relationship between music and calm? If we perceive less pain, are we not calmer? Indeed, the reduction of pain perception most likely does play a role in the leveling of anxiety, but there is evidence within the brain that music in fact does a whole lot.

In one study, where participants underwent a PET scan, the midbrain, ventral striatum, and parts of the cortex were activated when participants listened to music that gave them the “chills” (7). Another region that seems to be affected by music is the limbic system (2). This finding is useful when looking at music’s effects on stress, as the limbic system is home to the hypothalamus, which presides over emotional behavior and has an important role in hormonal response. The hypothalamus also regulates the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (SNS and PSNS, respectively). While the SNS activates the body into fight of flight responses, the PSNS brings the body back down to calmer levels. (8) Could calming music thus be affecting the hypothalamus, which in turn both activates the PSNS and deactivates the SNS? Indeed, this seems like a viable possibility, as music has been observed to reduce heart rate (4), precisely one of the effects of PSNS activation.

Let’s return to the notion that slower rhythms generally work best to sooth. Our body works on rhythm; from the pattern to which we breathe and walk to the rate our hearts beat and brain waves move. Music affects our body’s rhythms. Not only does our heart beat more slowly, but our breathing becomes deeper and our brain waves become smoother with fewer spikes (4). Furthermore, activity in the left and right hemispheres of the brain becomes more synchronous, an effect with profound ramifications. Surprising levels of synchrony in the brain has been found in Buddhist monks who meditate for long periods of time, suggesting that synchrony plays a large role in calm and clear behavior (9). Listening to music indeed acts as a form of meditation.

Music thus can have an intense effect on our state of being. My only parting question is whether there is another variable at work. Is it actually the music that calms us down or have we learned that we should try and make ourselves calm when listening to music. In other words, is our reaction to music truly something inherent about the rhythm of music, or has our social environment taught us through conditioning that we should use our own biological calming methods when music starts to play? Since all cultures around the globe have music, and since musical rhythm does seem to relate to biological rhythm, the prior explanation appears the closest to correct.

(1) Lai, H. L., Chen, C. J., Peng, T. C., Chang, F. M., Hsieh, M. L., Huang, H. Y., Change, S. C. (2006). Randomized controlled trial of music during kangaroo care on maternal state anxiety and preterm infants' responses. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 43, 139-46.
(2) Studies show song can help calm patients
(4) Music Therapy, Stress, Stress Relief, stress management, Relaxation
(5) Music and the brain
(6) The effect of music on pain perception
(7) New study points to the calming effects of music
(8) The limbic system
(9) Meditation alters brain structures


Serendip Visitor's picture


I am doing a senior project on music and its effects!
great info


relaxing with music

i loved the website it looks pretty i do love listening to music to calm me down and sometimes i listen to it as a pick me up something hip and it really does help to make our minds to relax and i feel great now well because i,ve been feeling out of it like i was on edge and once i put my headphones i forgot all about it i have this moment where i,ll feel shaky and i whould breath heavy it comes and goes i think it,s from the pressure i,ve been feeling because i have this job meeting coming up sometime this week and it,s putting me on edge that,s why i,m listening to music it helps taking the edge off a little bit and another thing i love about music it helps me sleep very deeply i hear it right before bed it knocks me out man so that,s why i listen to some music it does help alot.

Serendip Visitor's picture

This is great

This is great

Paul Grobstein's picture

rhythm and the brain

Maybe rhythms are an easy way to match input with expectations?  Thus minimizing discomfort