Choosing Music: Why It Works for Relaxation

Many people use music for relaxation – in fact, I’ve heard many people say “music is my therapy” to mean that they listen to (or play) music to deal with negative emotions and to “de-stress.” But what is it about music that can help you relax?

Music can help you relax in two ways: emotionally and physically. Here’s how it works:

1. On the emotional level, listening to music that matches your current mood or that represents the mood you wish to reach can help you get to that desired emotional state. Sometimes, you want to choose music that matches your current mood. For example, if you’re angry, listening to heavy metal can feel good because the music gives you an outlet for your frustration. This is better in the long run than letting that anger out in a more destructive way. If you’re depressed, on the other hand, you might choose a sad song (like these exquisitely sad songs.) The song provides a container for your emotions – you can pour your sadness into that song for a few minutes, and then perhaps you emerge feeling stronger and more ready to face the world. On the other hand, sometimes you might choose music that represents the mood you want to reach. For example, you might want to feel relaxed and serene, so you choose music by Enya or Debussy. You might even choose music that is set over the sounds of ocean waves or birdsong – this could help you reach the feeling you would have if you were relaxing on the beach or walking through a forest at dawn instead of being in your current, less-relaxing setting. The obvious problem is that these two scenarios are opposites of each other. So what do you pick – music that matches your current mood or your desired mood? Figuring out which to use might require some experimentation or intuition on your part. (This is one time when the direction and clinical expertise of a music therapist can be extra-helpful.) 2. On the physical level, music that has certain characteristics can help your body slow down and relax through a process called entrainment. We know from research that our bodies will tend to match the dominant stimulus in the environment – fast music will make us want to move faster, while slow music will make us want to move at a more relaxed pace, slowing down our breathing and our heartbeat. This entrainment process becomes even more effective and efficient when you start with music that matches your current state and shifts to a more relaxed state. (Janalea Hoffman’s Therapeutic Music albums are good examples of this kind of music.) I use this principle in music therapy sessions when I provide live music for relaxation – I start a song at a faster tempo and slow it down as my client begins breathing slower and I see muscles start to relax. It is true that music can help you feel better on an emotional level and on a physical level, but there really is no magical piece of music that will make everything better for everyone. In my next post, I will share tips for choosing music for the physical side of music-assisted relaxation. Until then, tell us what music helps you feel better on an emotional level. What are your favorite songs/selections for feeling more peaceful or serene? Leave your comment below!]]>

10 Comments

  1. […] my last post, you know that you can listen to or play music to help you relax on an emotional level or on a […]

  2. […] As discussed in the post on why music works for relaxation, we know that our bodies’ rhythms will tend to match the dominant stimuli in the environment. […]

  3. […] slow-tempo ballads. If you want music specifically to help with relaxation and encouraging sleep on the physiological level (based on the principle of entrainment), look for songs that are at a slow, even […]

  4. […] of a process known as entrainment, your body’s rhythms will tend to match the music you’re hearing. So, listen to music that is […]

  5. […] Music is better organized. In other words, music is regular and rhythmic, while other sounds – your family TV, the traffic outside, or the dishwasher – are irregular and more jarring. Our bodies tend to sync up with the dominant sound stimuli around us, in a process known as entrainment. […]

  6. […] slow-tempo ballads. If you want music specifically to help with relaxation and encouraging sleep on the physiological level (based on the principle of entrainment), look for songs that are at a slow, even […]

  7. […] in caregiving, and especially about using music for self-care. We talked about choosing music for emotional and physical relaxation, exercising to music as a form of self-expression and stress relief, and […]

  8. […] Tempo choices are also important in one-to-one sessions. In fact, one technique I use often in hospice care is all about tempo. We call it entrainment or using the iso principle, and it involves starting music at a higher tempo, matching the client’s energy, anxiety, or pain level, then gradually decreasing the tempo. Because our bodies want to match the dominant rhythm in the environment, this helps the client to relax, in body and mind. (Read more about using the principle of entrainment for yourself here.) […]

  9. […] Besides using music to relax on an emotional level, by getting you to a happier or calmer frame of mind, you can use music to help your body to relax on a physical level. Through the process of entrainment, your body’s rhythms will want to match the dominant rhythms in your environment. So, choosing steady music around 60 beats per minute will help you slow your heartbeat to a resting rate, deepen your breath, and turn on the “rest and digest” part of your nervous system. Using slow and steady music will help your body relax. (You can read more about that process here.) […]

  10. […] can help people relax on a physical level and on an emotional level. Music therapists are uniquely skilled in helping […]

Leave a Comment