Listening to moving music that produces “chills” may reduce pain, study finds

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Top down image of a mobile phone displaying a music app and earphones - stock photo

While it has been proven in the past that music has been found to help relieve the feeling of pain, new research suggests that music that produces an emotional response may have an even more powerful effect.

Writing in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research, Darius Valevicius – the first author of the research from McGill University in Montreal, Canada – found that while listening to a preferred artist may lead to a reduction of pain equal to painkillers, music that produces “chills” has an even greater impact.

“We can approximate that favourite music reduced pain by about one point on a 10-point scale, which is at least as strong as an over-the-counter painkiller like Advil [ibuprofen] under the same conditions. Moving music may have an even stronger effect,” he said (via The Guardian).

The study conducted saw 63 healthy participants attend the Roy pain laboratory on the McGill campus, and researchers applied heat akin to a hot cup of coffee to their left arm. Some were asked to listen to two of their favourite tracks, some had relaxing music selected for them, some listened to scrambled music, and others sat in silence.

Top down image of a mobile phone displaying a music app and earphones – stock photo. CREDIT: Catherine Falls Commercial/Getty

From there, they were asked to rate the intensity and unpleasantness of the pain after around seven minutes, as well as the pleasantness from the music number of “chills” they experienced from the songs (referring to tingling, shivers or goosebumps).

Those listening to their favourite tracks rated the pain as less intense by about four points on a 100-point scale, and less unpleasant by about nine points compared to those assigned silence or scrambled sound. Additionally, those listening to relaxing music assigned to them rated the pain as higher than those listening to their preferred choice of music.

“We found a very strong correlation between music pleasantness and pain unpleasantness, but zero correlation between music pleasantness and pain intensity, which would be an unlikely finding if it was just placebo or expectation effects,” said Valevicius.

Further research revealed that music that produced more ‘chills’ was associated with lower pain intensity and pain unpleasantness.

“The difference in effect on pain intensity implies two mechanisms – chills may have a physiological sensory-gating effect, blocking ascending pain signals, while pleasantness may affect the emotional value of pain without affecting the sensation, so more at a cognitive-emotional level involving prefrontal brain areas,” explained Valevicius, although he stated more research is needed before this can be fully confirmed.

Researchers also say it is not yet known whether moving music would have a similar “chill-creating” effect in listeners who do not usually opt for that type of music, or if people who favour such music are simply more prone to musical chills.

Young woman with headphones sitting on rooftop - stock photo
Young woman with headphones sitting on rooftop – stock photo. CREDIT: Westend61/Getty

As reported by The Guardian, Dr Brendan Rooney of University College Dublin’s School of Psychology said he was not convinced there is some special quality about the music itself, however did agree that a stronger painkilling effect was generated in people who listened to their preferred music.

The recent study related to a similar report shared by NME back in 2017. The study – conducted by University of Southern California PhD student Matthew Sachs – found that people who get goosebumps when listening to music are more in touch with their emotions.

Similarly, in 2015 it was found that punk and metal music makes you calmer, and in 2019 that death metal actually inspires feelings of “joy” as opposed to violence or misery.

Back in 2012, research also proved that listening to new music is good for the brain – with MRI scans revealing that the reward centre of the brain becomes active when people hear a new song for the first time. That being said, if you’re into running it may be best to avoid Drake’s music, as a study in 2021 showed that listening to the rapper’s music while jogging will actually make you run slower than normal.

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