Written by Kevin P. Gosselin, Ph.D.
Have you ever listened to a song and thought, “This expresses exactly how I feel!”? When your favorite song comes on the radio, do you feel a twinge of excitement and elation? After a long day, does listening to classical music help you unwind? Many of us are drawn to music and it is seemingly inseparable from our day-to-day lives. What is it about music that so many of us find inviting? Perspectives from philosophers, psychologists, musicologists, and other scholars have proposed numerous theories on why we listen to music. Among these suppositions include music’s ability to influence our moods, facilitate self-awareness, and promote social connectedness and cultural cohesion. Accordingly, music is thought to serve a diverse array of functions spanning cognitive, emotional, social, and physiological dimensions.
Researchers have sought to provide empirical evidence to discern the impact of music in a variety of fields and settings. As an example, the use of music as a therapeutic approach in healthcare has been well established. Music listening has shown effectiveness in reducing pain, calming symptoms arising from chronic diseases, and providing contentment for patients at end of life . Music has also been used to reduce anxiety for both patients and healthcare providers. Support for music to mitigate anxiety and improve performance has been demonstrated across a variety of settings. For example, the application of music listening for future healthcare providers in educational settings has demonstrated a reduction in anxiety and improvement in self-confidence and performance for students following a 30-minute listening intervention .
The literature shows that if this anxiety gets too high, it can hinder a person’s ability to perform skills at an effective level. This applies in a variety of contexts including educational environments (taking a test), healthcare (performing a complex surgical technique), or caring for a loved one. Music provides a safe, cost-effective, and easy method for potentially reducing anxiety so that we can perform at our best. When selecting music, keep in mind the following recommendations:
- Select music that is primarily instrumental with little to no brass or percussion. Music with stringed instruments or piano are ideal choices.
- Choose music with a tempo from about 60 to 80 beats per minutes. Start with music on the higher end of the tempo range (80 beats per minute). Each subsequent song should have a slower tempo.
- Where possible, try to eliminate outside distractions when listening to music. Headphones and an eye mask are potential ways to help keep your focus on the music and to minimize extraneous activity.
Examples of music that meet these criteria include the following:
- Air on the G String (J.S. Bach)
- Canon in D (J. Pachelbel)
- Largo from Concerto in D Major (A. Vivaldi)
- Firebird Suite: Dance of the Princess (I. Stravinsky)
- Sonata No. 8, “Pathetique” – Second Movement (L. V. Beethoven)
Keep in mind that findings from many research studies examine aggregate data (i.e., averages), and might miss individuals that have preferences different from the broader population. If slow music with strings isn’t working for you, consider listening to music of your choice as an alternative. Early research has also demonstrated benefits, including anxiety reduction, when music is self-selected.
To learn more about the ‘Power of Music,’ check out my latest interview with Alicia Cassels, MFLN Military Caregiving team member, on her podcast, Show Up Inspired.
References Nilsson,U. (2008). The anxiety-reducing and pain reducing effects of music interventions: A systematic review. AORN Journal, 87(4), 780-807.
 Gosselin, K. P., Holland, B., Mulcahy, A., Wiliamson, S., & Widacki, A. (2016). Music for anxiety reduction and performance enhancement in nursing simulation. Clinical Simulation in Nursing, 12(1), 16-23.