Hitting the right note for pain relief

3 minute read

Choice and engagement with music are the keys to greater comfort.

“Music has charms to soothe the savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak,” according to 17th-century playwright and poet William Congreve.

This belief that a soothing melody has the capacity to calm a troubled soul is no doubt the reason so many of our everyday interactions, such as riding an elevator or shopping at a supermarket, are subjected to musical accompaniment. 

Music also has a well-documented role to play in assisting pain relief, especially for those with acute and chronic pain.

But, just like with the soundtrack in the shopping mall, researchers have found that that the choice of music being played has a key role to play in the effectiveness of that pain relief.

More specifically, it is the “perception” of choice of music which holds the key. If the pain sufferers believe they are influencing what music is being played then that belief can improve the effectiveness of the relief, even if in reality they are not getting to choose.

We have UK and Irish scientists to thank for this insight. In their research, published this month in the journal PLOS ONE, they asked 286 adults with acute pain to rate their pain before and after listening to a selected music track. 

These folks were randomly assigned to hear either a low- or high-complexity piece of music, and some were randomly selected to be given the impression that they had some control over the musical qualities of the track, although they heard the same track regardless of their choice. 

The researchers found that those who felt they had control over the music experienced greater relief in the intensity of their pain than participants who were not given such an impression.

The complexity or otherwise of the chosen music, however, did not seem to have an impact on the amount of pain relief experienced, suggesting that those who felt they had control listened more intently to what was being played.

That added engagement with the music might be the key to the increase in analgesic effect, the researchers said.

“Now we know that the act of choosing music is an important part of the wellbeing benefits that we see from music listening. It’s likely that people listen more closely, or more carefully when they choose the music themselves,” the study authors said in a media release.

Future research could further explore the relationship between music choice and subsequent engagement, as well as strategies for boosting engagement to improve pain relief, they said.

Your Back Page correspondent, however, would prefer research into why the music chosen by his local retail emporium seems to be selected to inflict mental pain, rather than relieve it.

If you hear something that sets your teeth on edge, spin it on over to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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