Choosing Music: Why It Works for Relaxation

Many people use music for relaxation – in fact, I’ve heard many people say “music is my therapy” to mean that they listen to (or play) music to deal with negative emotions and to “de-stress.” But what is it about music that can help you relax?

Music can help you relax in two ways: emotionally and physically. Here’s how it works:

1. On the emotional level, listening to music that matches your current mood or that represents the mood you wish to reach can help you get to that desired emotional state.

Sometimes, you want to choose music that matches your current mood. For example, if you’re angry, listening to heavy metal can feel good because the music gives you an outlet for your frustration. This is better in the long run than letting that anger out in a more destructive way. If you’re depressed, on the other hand, you might choose a sad song (like these exquisitely sad songs.) The song provides a container for your emotions – you can pour your sadness into that song for a few minutes, and then perhaps you emerge feeling stronger and more ready to face the world.

On the other hand, sometimes you might choose music that represents the mood you want to reach. For example, you might want to feel relaxed and serene, so you choose music by Enya or Debussy. You might even choose music that is set over the sounds of ocean waves or birdsong – this could help you reach the feeling you would have if you were relaxing on the beach or walking through a forest at dawn instead of being in your current, less-relaxing setting.

The obvious problem is that these two scenarios are opposites of each other. So what do you pick – music that matches your current mood or your desired mood? Figuring out which to use might require some experimentation or intuition on your part. (This is one time when the direction and clinical expertise of a music therapist can be extra-helpful.)

2. On the physical level, music that has certain characteristics can help your body slow down and relax through a process called entrainment.

We know from research that our bodies will tend to match the dominant stimulus in the environment – fast music will make us want to move faster, while slow music will make us want to move at a more relaxed pace, slowing down our breathing and our heartbeat. This entrainment process becomes even more effective and efficient when you start with music that matches your current state and shifts to a more relaxed state. (Janalea Hoffman’s Therapeutic Music albums are good examples of this kind of music.) I use this principle in music therapy sessions when I provide live music for relaxation – I start a song at a faster tempo and slow it down as my client begins breathing slower and I see muscles start to relax.

It is true that music can help you feel better on an emotional level and on a physical level, but there really is no magical piece of music that will make everything better for everyone. In my next post, I will share tips for choosing music for the physical side of music-assisted relaxation. Until then, tell us what music helps you feel better on an emotional level. What are your favorite songs/selections for feeling more peaceful or serene? Leave your comment below!

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