Summary: People who were made to feel in control of the music they listened to experienced greater pain relief than those who felt they were not in control of their music exposure.
A new study examines the use of listening to music to relieve acute pain and finds that people who were given the impression that they were in control of the music they were listening to experienced greater pain relief than those who were not given that control .
dr Claire Howlin from Queen Mary University of London, UK, and colleagues from University College Dublin, Ireland, present these results in PLUS ONE on August 3, 2022.
Listening to music can be used for pain relief, especially for chronic pain, meaning pain that lasts longer than 12 weeks. However, the underlying mechanisms of these benefits are unclear, particularly in the case of acute pain, i.e. pain lasting less than 12 weeks.
Basic musical characteristics such as tempo or energy appear to be less important for pain relief; Instead, feeling empowered to make decisions about music may be key to pain relief.
However, previous work has largely focused on results from laboratory samples that did not examine real, pre-existing acute pain.
To improve understanding, Howlin and colleagues asked 286 adults with real-world acute pain to rate their pain before and after listening to a music track. The track was specially composed in two different versions of different complexity.
Contestants were randomly assigned to either the low or high complexity version, and some were chosen at random to give the impression that they had some control over the track’s musical qualities, although regardless of their choice, they felt the same title heard.
The researchers found that participants who felt they were in control of the music experienced greater pain relief than participants who weren’t given that impression. In questionnaires, participants reported enjoying both versions of the track, but no associations were found between the complexity of the music and the extent of pain relief.
Additionally, participants who were more actively involved with music in their daily lives experienced even greater pain-relieving benefits when they felt in control of the track used in this study.
These results suggest that music selection and engagement are important to optimize their pain relief potential. Future research could further explore the relationship between music selection and subsequent engagement, as well as strategies to increase engagement to improve pain relief.
The authors add: “Now we know that music choice is an important part of the wellbeing benefits we see from listening to music. It’s likely that people will listen more closely or listen more carefully if they choose the music themselves.”
About this pain and news from music research
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Contact: Press Office – PLOS
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Original research: Open access.
“Turning off pain: Action and active engagement predict a decrease in pain intensity after listening to music” by Claire Howlin et al. PLUS ONE
Blanking out pain: Agency and active engagement predict a decrease in pain intensity after listening to music
Music is increasingly recognized as an adjuvant treatment for pain management. Music can help reduce the experience of both chronic and experiential pain. Cognitive agency has been identified as a specific mechanism that may mediate the analgesic benefits of music use, but it is unclear whether this specific mechanism leads to acute pain.
Previous attempts to understand the cognitive mechanisms underlying musical analgesia have been overwhelmingly laboratory-based, limiting the extent to which observed effects could be applicable to participants’ daily lives.
To fill these gaps in naturalistic settings, the present study examined the degree to which cognitive agency (i.e. perceived choice in music), musical characteristics (i.e. complexity), and individual levels of musical sophistication are related to perceived pain. In a global online experiment using an between-group randomized experimental design with two levels for choice (no choice and perceived choice) and two levels for music (high and low complexity), a sample of 286 adults reported acute pain about their pain intensity and pain discomfort before and after listening to music.
A bespoke piece of music was co-created with a commercial artist to allow manipulation of music complexity while controlling familiarity while providing an authentic music listening experience.
Overall, the results indicated that increased perceived control over music is associated with analgesic benefits and that perceived choice is more important than music complexity. To emphasize the importance of listener engagement, individuals reporting higher levels of active engagement experienced greater decreases in pain intensity in the perceived choice condition than those reporting lower levels of active engagement.
These findings have implications for both research and practice, and emphasize the importance of facilitating choice and sustained engagement with music during music listening interventions.