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Chronic Pain

How Music Can Alleviate Your Pain

Music can be a complementary alternative to chronic pain medication.

Key points

  • Music is a tool that can help people cope with stress or distract them from a bad mood.
  • Evidence shows that music interventions can be beneficial in treating patients with chronic pain.
  • People listen more closely when they choose the music themselves.

Chronic pain affects over 40 percent of the general population and is one of the leading causes of disability. For years opioid-based medications have been the primary treatment choice for chronic pain but with poor long-term outcomes and the potential for dependence.

A growing body of research supports the use of music interventions to alleviate pain (Lunde, et al., 2022). Music interventions provide low-cost, easily applicable, complementary pain treatments. And no musical background or experience is necessary for music therapy to be effective (Sihvonen, et al., 2022).

So, how does listening to music benefit patients? Music that expresses joy triggers positive memories and can affect mood and the ability to handle pain. Patients are distracted by memories away from their pain. Because anxiety is frequently related to increased pain perception, relaxing music can reduce pain perception. However, your preference matters: If, for example, you don't care for classical music, a classical selection could have the opposite effect.

1. Musical reward. Research shows that when we listen to music, our brains release dopamine, which, in turn, makes us happy. Dopamine is responsible for an individual potentially being motivated to keep listening to a piece of music, or to seek out that music in the future. With chronic pain, reduced dopamine has been assumed to enable increased pain. So, music may act to reduce pain through the release of dopamine.

2. Calming effects. Stress influences our perception of pain which could make it feel worse. Music provides calmness and relaxation. Listening to music is strongly associated with stress reduction by the decrease of physiological arousal as indicated by reduced cortisol levels and lowered heart rate. Relaxing songs can help reduce heart rate and blood pressure and distract from worries. This also explains why a mother's lullabies are so soothing to an infant: They decrease heart rate and respiration.

3. Distraction. Painkillers can be effective because they block pain signals from getting to the brain. While music is not actually a pain reliever, it can distract the mind from pain, especially for anxiety-provoking medical treatments. For example, it is known that music can be effective in suppressing acute pain during dental procedures. Also, time seems to fly faster when listening to pleasant music. Hearing pleasant music seems to divert attention away from time processing.

4, Music of your choice. Music preference is extremely personal. Listening to preferred music seems to be more effective in reducing pain intensity and increasing pain tolerance. When people are involved in music choice, they become more engaged in the listening experience (Howlin et al., 2022).

5. Ideal music. We tend to prefer stimuli that are neither too easy nor too difficult. If the music is too simple for the listener it can lead to boredom, and if it is too complex it can lead to irritation or over-stimulation. The sweet spot, for most people, is somewhere in the middle.

In sum, research suggests that music can provide a safe and non-invasive intervention to reduce acute and chronic pain. And for most people, a short daily exposure (15 minutes to an hour) has been shown to be sufficient to result in measurable responses. Music may not benefit everyone, though, and for some, it may trigger sad memories. In addition, neurological musical disorders, such as amusia and musical anhedonia, may hinder the benefits of music interventions—and migraine pain may diminish one's tolerance to auditory stimuli. However, generally, music provides an alternative to opioid-based medication. The main benefits include enjoyment, relaxation, and distraction, and anxiety and boredom reduction.


Howlin C, Stapleton A, Rooney B (2022). Tune out pain: Agency and active engagement predict decreases in pain intensity after music listening. PLoS ONE 17(8): e0271329.

Lunde S. J., Vuust P., Garza-Villarreal E. A., Kirsch I., Møller A., Vase L. (2022). Music-induced analgesia in healthy participants is associated with expected pain levels but not opioid or dopamine-dependent mechanisms. Front. Pain Res. 3:734999.

Sihvonen, A. J., Pitkäniemi, A., Särkämö, T., and Soinila, S. (2022). Isn’t there room for music in chronic pain management? J. Pain 23, 1143–1150.

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