How to Relieve Stress Through Music

Did you know there are simple, easy ways to tackle your stress – without spending a fortune? One of the best ways to relieve stress is through music; and we’ve got the science to back it up.


 

Music has a way of influencing our emotions, both positively and negatively, depending on the song. Ever notice that you seem happier after listening to your favorite song? It’s more than just a “feeling” – research has actually explained the chemical reactions that music can produce in your brain.

Here’s a closer look at how music impacts your mood, and how you can take advantage of this stress-relieving tactic.

What the Research Says

In one experiment, 30 participants listened to musical excerpts deemed “happy” or “sad.” After listening, the participants were shown photographs of human faces. These photographs ranged from happy to sad expressions, including plenty of neutral expressions. The participants rated the emotional state of the face in each photo, along a seven-point scale; where one represented extremely sad and seven represented extremely happy.

The people who listened to “happy” music rated the happy faces as even happier, while those who listened to “sad” music rated the unhappy faces as even sadder. The researchers found that the mood of the music participants listened to, whether happy or sad, significantly exaggerated their perceptions of those emotions in other people.

Music doesn’t just influence how we feel emotionally; it actually impacts our bodies. A recent study of 117 volunteers illustrated this phenomenon. Volunteers all attended a live concert, featuring music by the same composer. The researchers took saliva samples from each participant both before the performance, and an hour later, during the show’s intermission.

They found that glucocorticoid levels dropped, across almost all participants. This included a drop in levels of cortisol, commonly considered the “stress hormone.”

A steady level of cortisol is important for normal body functions; but when your body enters a “fight or flight” response mode, cortisol levels spike, raising your blood sugar and suppressing the digestive system and immune system. In a brief moment of intensity, this reaction can be helpful. But high levels of cortisol for too long can cause long-term mental and physical issues.

As the concert study demonstrates, live music can lower your levels of “stress hormones” to help you relax. The best part? The researchers found no difference between people of different ages, or musical abilities – suggesting that this response is universal among all concert audience members and music listeners.

 

Music as a Universal Language

What do music and emotion have in common? They’re both universal languages. Everyone worldwide—no matter their culture or spoken language—understands the six basic (or “universal”) emotions.

In the 1960s, psychologist Paul Ekman showed test subjects various photos of human faces representing different emotions. Test subjects classified the faces into emotional states. Ekman’s team of researchers found that six core emotions that existed across cultures:

  • Joy
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Anger
  • Disgust
  • Fear

No matter where we grew up, all humans recognize these same six emotional states (some people classify “contempt” as a seventh universal emotion).

Emotions and facial expressions aren’t the only types of language that are universal across human cultures. Just as people can recognize emotions in other human faces, people also understand the emotion a musical piece portrays. We all know that sad music uses soft dynamics, a soft tempo, a minor key, and legato articulation (whether we know those specific terms or not, we recognize those sounds and patterns as creating “sad” music). Happy music uses louder intensities, a major key, and staccato articulation.

Psych Central calls this musical language “halfway between thought and phenomenon.” Through the patterns and notes they write, composers are able to manipulate emotions. “Music has the ability to conjure up images and feelings that need not necessarily be directly reflected in memory.”

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what language you speak; music has the power to influence all of our moods. The right composition can make us happier, sadder, and even less stressed.

Ways to Use Music for Stress Relief

Like the idea of using music as an affordable, natural stress reliever? Whether you need a break from your endless to-do list, or you’ve observed your kids becoming increasingly stressed over homework; there are several ways you can integrate music into your own and your children’s lives.

Not only will you improve your kids’ emotional wellbeing; you’ll also foster healthy coping skills, by giving them tools to ease their own stresses and worries. Plus, how many kids will protest to more music in their lives?

Start with these suggestions:

  1. Take your kids to concerts and musicals – Not only is this a great way to get out of the house and relax for a bit, but it also provides a great bonding experience for the entire family. Be selective about the shows you attend. As the research shows, different types of music elicit different emotional responses. Choose something with a soothing, happy tone; a genre that suits your style, and will leave you feeling refreshed and joyous as you walk out of the show.
  2. Perform in shows and musicals – You might be surprised at how much your kids (and even you!) enjoy participating in musical events. Check out your local community theater, and get involved in one of their musicals. Consider signing your children up for music classes and recitals, through your community or school district.
  3. Sing karaoke – Go out of town with friends, or put on a karaoke party in the living room with your kids! Singing upbeat, happy tunes is a great way to let go of your stress, and have some fun. Extra silly karaoke can lead you into a bit of laughter therapy, as well – doubling the stress relief.
  4. Play music in the background – Whether you’re working, cleaning, cooking, or helping the kids with homework; playingmusic in the background can help ease stress while completing various tasks. Put on a soothing tune at a low volume, to decrease your “stress hormones” without distracting you. Focus on instrumental compositions — such as classical songs — rather than songs with lyrics; since the lyrics activate the language centers of the brain, and can distract you from the tasks you’re working on. Experiment with different types of music with your children, to see which songs distract them, and which help them focus.

Knowing that music can influence your mood – emotionally and chemically speaking – is extremely valuable when seeking stress relief. Put these ideas and tips to use, and try purposely listening to pleasant music when you’re feeling depressed, angry or frustrated. Add more music to your children’s lives – in the form of both listening and performing music – to ease their stress levels and help them cope with emotions in healthy ways. Don’t get discouraged if one type of music doesn’t work for you, or your kids; you may have to try several different styles until you find one you personally like.

Featured photo credit: Shutterstock via image.shutterstock.com

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