How to use music therapy for relaxation and stress management

Music can have a profound effect on both the emotions and the body. Faster music can make you feel more alert and concentrate better. Upbeat music can make you feel more optimistic and positive about life. A slower tempo can quiet your mind and relax your muscles, making you feel soothed while releasing the stress of the day. Music is effective for relaxation and stress management.

Research confirms these personal experiences with music. Current findings indicate that music around 60 beats per minute can cause the brain to synchronize with the beat causing alpha brainwaves (frequencies from 8 – 14 hertz or cycles per second). This alpha brainwave is what is present when we are relaxed and conscious. To induce sleep (a delta brainwave of 5 hertz), a person may need to devote at least 45 minutes, in a relaxed position, listening to calming music. Researchers at Stanford University have said that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.” They noted that music is something that almost anybody can access and makes it an easy stress reduction tool.

So what type of music reduces stress the best? A bit surprising is that Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed-instruments, drums, and flutes are very effective at relaxing the mind even when played moderately loud. Sounds of rain, thunder, and nature sounds may also be relaxing particularly when mixed with other music, such as light jazz, classical (the “largo” movement), and easy listening music. Since with music we are rarely told the beats per minute, how do you choose the relaxation music that is best for you? The answer partly rests with you: You must first like the music being played, and then it must relax you. You could start by simply exploring the music on this web page. Some may relax you, some may not. Forcing yourself to listen to relaxation music that irritates you can create tension, not reduce it. If that happens, try looking for alternatives on the internet or consult with Counseling Service staff for other musical suggestions. It is important to remember that quieting your mind does not mean you will automatically feel sleepy. It means your brain and body are relaxed, and with your new calm self, you can then function at your best in many activities.

Experiment now. Experience a “sound bath” and let the music carry you away

The links below each open relaxing musical selections in YouTube.

A Moment of Peace Meditation
Aneal & Bradfield, “Heaven and Earth Spirits” track from Life & Love). Lovely contemporary piano music with accompanying instruments and nature scenes.

Echoes of Time
C. Carlos Nakai from the Canyon Trilogy. Serene Native American flute music, with a picture of Nakai backlit by the sun at the Grand Canyon.

The Winding Path
Ken Kern from The Winding Path. Highly rated, beautiful piano music with accompanying instruments with pictures of exquisite flowers and plants.

Classical Indian Music for Healing and Relaxing
Gayatri Govindarajan, “Pure Deep Meditation” track. Lovely and rhythmic music played on the veena, the most ancient of the Indian plucked-instruments, with nature scenes.

Angels of Venice
Angels of Venice from Music for Harp, Flute and Cello. Classical with 3 instruments with nature pictures.

Earth Drum
“Spirit Vision,” (David & Steve Gordon. Serene and lovely contemporary Native American informed-drumming music utilizing Taos Log Drum and Incan Pan along with other instruments and ocean/forest nature scenes.

Buddha Spirit
Aneal & Bradfield from Light & Love. Reflective but strong contemporary music utilizing various instruments and occasional humming voices with colorful oscillating fractals

Spa Relaxing Music
Tranquil contemporary instrumental with piano and a fixed candle light.

Relaxation Music: 1-Hour Meditation Candle
Serene contemporary instrumental with piano and one flickering candle.

Sleep Deeply
Dan Gibson. Nature sounds and instrumental, tranquil sleep music.

Marconi Union. The sounds on this video are carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines that help slow a listener’s heart rate, reduce blood pressure, and lower levels of the cortisol stress hormone.

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Music Therapy

From our: Relaxation Techniques section.

This page is part of a series of articles covering relaxation techniques especially suited to managing and reducing stress.

If you are worried about your stress levels or those of somebody you know then you should seek professional help from a doctor or counsellor. Stress left untreated can be dangerous to your health and wellbeing.

This page provides information about how you can use music to help you relax or release tension, a way to manage or reduce stress. 

There is an important distinction between personal music therapy, as covered on this page – which you can use at any time to aid relaxation – and professional music therapists. Music therapists are highly trained individuals who work with clients of all ages and use musical instruments and voice to enable people to express their emotions.

For more information about the work of professional music therapists see:

How Sound Affects Us

Sound therapy involves using sound waves to heal the body and mind.

Such sounds are not what we traditionally think of as music but usually continuous tones created by drums, gongs or more modern ultrasonic machines. The theory behind sound therapy is that all of our bodies’ cells vibrate at a natural frequency.  These frequencies can become misaligned or otherwise changed through illness or physical stress.

By subjecting the body, or part of the body, to a sound at a particular frequency such problems can be improved. An example is playing back a recording of a particular sound at a predetermined and constant frequency to treat muscular aches and pains, which may have been caused by stress.

Some people claim that sound therapy works well for them, while others remain more sceptical. Regardless of the effectiveness of sound therapy there is little doubt that music can affect us and can be used effectively to aid relaxation and stress relief.

The Power of Music

It is a well-established fact that music can alter our mood, stir emotions and may even lead us to behave in unusual ways. There are many ways that music can make us feel, including:

  • Patriotic – National anthems and other music associated with a country or geographic area.

  • Loyalty – Music and sounds associated with sports events, schools, clubs and other organisations.

  • Spiritual – Hymns, chants, gospel and other music and sounds associated with religion or the divine.

  • Nostalgic – Music can remind us of the past, both good times and bad times.

  • Love – Music can be used to express love and as a sign of affection.

  • Hate – Music can be used in war and violence and to promote anger.

  • Energetic – Rhythms in music can make us tap our feet, clap our hands and dance.  Music can aid physical exercise.

  • Happy – Music can lift our mood, make us smile, laugh and sing along.

  • Sad – Music can make us feel melancholy, gloomy or even depressed.  Music can make us cry.

  • Excited – Music is often used to excite us, like at a funfair or during some tense moment in a movie.

  • Irritated – Music we don’t like can irritate us, as can an ‘ear-worm’ a tune that gets stuck in your head and is repeated over and over.

  • Unexplained – Sometimes music can cause more unexplained physical reactions, like the hairs standing up on the back of your neck or goosebumps which are more commonly associated with strong feelings of nostalgia, pleasure, euphoria, astonishment or awe.

The list above is by no means complete, music and sound affect us in all conceivable ways – even when we are not fully listening or paying attention. It should be clear that music can also, therefore, be used as an effective relaxation technique – a way to reduce stress levels and release tensions.

What Works for You?

One problem with using music as a tool for relaxation is that everybody has different tastes. You need to find what works best for you. Musical styles and genres are so diverse that it may be difficult to find a particular style that best suits you.

Furthermore, different styles may help you to relax at different times and in different ways. A warm, candle-lit bath whilst listening to soft classical music may work sometimes, whereas loud rock music may help you to release pent up tensions through dancing and/or singing along.

It is important, therefore, that you find out what sort of music can help you and in what circumstance.  Work on increasing your musical repertoire to find styles, artists, composers and genres that you enjoy listening to.

Listen to different radio stations online or over the air, buy or borrow new music and experiment; you may discover a whole new area of music that appeals to you.

Personal Music Therapy

Relaxation with music does not necessarily mean sitting or lying still whilst listening, although this can be particularity relaxing.

Enjoying the therapeutic benefits of music can be achieved in much more active situations, during sport, at work, while you cook, while gardening – with modern technology such as MP3 players and smart-phones music has become truly portable and customisable it can be enjoyed anywhere.

By actively listening to music – this means consciously listening, not just hearing music – you occupy your brain and distract it from other thoughts.

If you are stressed about something then it is likely that your problems, worries and concerns occupy a lot of your brain time making you tired and irritable – classic symptoms of stress.  Music can offer a healthy and low-cost escape, lifting your mood and maybe even making you smile.

Some ways to enjoy music:

  • Fully relaxing – try using the basic relaxation technique outlined on our Relaxation Techniques page. Use headphones or noise reducing in-ear buds to listen to some soothing music. Set the volume at a comfortable level for you, neither too loud nor too quiet.  Relax and concentrate on listening to the music.

  • Overcoming a fear – a good example of this is on an aeroplane. Many people have certain anxieties about flying, especially during take-off and landing. Use your headphones or ear-buds and close your eyes or use an eye mask – choose some soothing music to help you overcome your fear. Remember your fellow passengers, the noise of the plane may cancel out a lot of your music but being able to hear somebody else’s headphones can be very annoying.

  • Overcoming frustration – being stuck in traffic, especially if you are running late for work or another appointment is, as you will know if it has ever happened to you, very frustrating. Try putting some of your favourite music on in the car (when appropriate) – turn the volume up and sing or hum along. This can be a great way to alleviate the stress of such situations.

  • While you exercise – exercise itself is a good stress reliever and can help your mind relax – your endorphin (anti-stress hormone) levels increase while your cortisol (stress hormone) levels decrease. Exercising to music can help take your mind away from the fact you are exercising, especially if you find it boring or physically hard, so you actually get a better workout. If you have ever been to the gym you will notice how most people exercise to music. Pick music with a beat that matches the rhythm of your exercise, if you concentrate on the music your body will slip into a rhythm and you will achieve your goals more easily.

  • Whenever is appropriate – try listening to your music more frequently, whenever you can and is appropriate to your surroundings.

Vocal Toning

Vocal toning is a method of using your voice to help create inner calm and reduce stress.

Vocal toning is not singing and therefore your ability to sing or whether or not you consider yourself ‘tone-deaf’ is not relevant.

Toning is based on the idea that we have many pent-up emotions and frustrations. We are taught, from an early age, to be quiet in most day-to-day situations, making loud noises is discouraged or seen as a sign of anger or aggression.

Toning provides a way of freeing suppressed feelings and emotions through the release of sound, encouraging us to make random loud noises and sounds.

Try some vocal toning to see if it works for you.

Make long, draw out, loud noises: shouts, grunts, screeches, hums. Don’t worry about what you sound like, just make the noises that feel right to you. As with laughter therapy, vocal toning can help reduce adrenaline and cortisol the main hormones associated with stress.

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management

Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life

Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.

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