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(Credits: Far Out / Mink Mingle / Laura Chouette)

Music

The science behind music's ability to keep you calm

@notmyyaztattoo

When I feel like I’m about to absolutely explode or fall into a pit of anxiety, I have a playlist at the ready—and I know I’m not the only one. Everyone has their own selection of music that they turn to when in need of something to help calm them down. For some, it’s enough to pop on a lo-fi beats radio station and call it a day. Others, meanwhile, prefer to turn on some nostalgia-driven content or their most recent musical obsession.

Regardless of your anxiety playlist, it’s clear that a lot of people have sounds they turn to, and it’s just something that naturally occurs in the world. Music is a common coping mechanism for plenty of people, and although you might be inclined to feel like there has to be a scientific or psychological reason behind it, it can be difficult to put your finger on exactly why. But that hunch is correct, and there’s plenty of evidence to support music’s ability to calm you down from a state of stress. 

Although everyone has their own choice of tracks, there is a specific formula to the kind of music is the best for remaining calm. Current findings from studies 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). Alpha brainwaves are specifically present when a person is relaxed and conscious. 

Researchers at Stanford University have said that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.” This is also why listening to music around 60bpm can help you sleep faster and better, especially if you do it for around 45 minutes.

Listening to music has also been proven to lower cortisol levels—the stress hormone in the brain. A recent 2021 study proved that adults who listened both to personal and neutral selections of music, both at home and in a laboratory environment, had significantly reduced cortisol levels. Studies also show that listening to music and using it as a therapeutic tool had positive results 68.5% of the time, including in the treatment of other mental illnesses in addition to anxiety, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression.

When it comes to the types of music that are best for reducing stress, studies find that Native American, Celtic, Indian stringed instruments, drums, and flutes are very effective at relaxing the mind even when played at moderate volumes. This doesn’t mean that other types of music aren’t naturally inclined to calm the mind, however, especially as there are plenty of qualities that these music styles share that can appear across genres. 

This idea is also tied to the use of music as a meditation tool, which it has been for centuries. While many people prefer to meditate in silence, there is a long history of using sound and meditation in tandem to create a calm and relaxed environment. This is part of the reason why people do sound baths and use tools like bells and singing bowls as a part of meditation—even on a psychological and scientific level, they offer an additional sense of calm and relaxation.

Even if you aren’t using music to meditate necessarily, there’s still a meditative quality to putting on your favourite music to calm you down. If you’re on the hunt for songs that meet the 60bpm criteria, look no further than ‘Sign of the Times’ by Harry Styles, ‘I Could Write A Book’ by Ella Fitzgerald, or even ‘Super Rich Kids’ by Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt.

Really, we’ve always kind of known that there’s a deeper reason as to why music helps to keep you calm, and as it turns out, our brains are literally wired for it.

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