A quick look at the neuroscience behind the effect music has on humans and a list of the 10 most relaxing pieces of music
Most of us will all have a list of our favourite pieces of music, which have the power to rejuvenate or energise, help us feel motivated or soothe and calm us. Music is very personal and maybe part of the soundtrack to our lives and reflect earlier moments in our life course and our taste in music may evolve and change over time.
A song may mark a particular event such as our first big night out marking a rite of passage, the track we like to dance to, our first kiss, our first live music event, or more poignantly, a song that reminds us of someone who is no longer part of our lives triggering memories and nostalgia for past times.
A study in 2011 reported in Nature Neuroscience, found that music can change our mood as it releases the chemical dopamine in the brain. Dopamine, the “feel-good" chemical” has a key role in mood and was released at moments of peak enjoyment. In this study, levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9% higher when volunteers were listening to music they enjoyed. The authors of the report indicate that this is significant in proving humans obtain pleasure from music, an abstract reward that is comparable with the pleasure obtained from more basic biological stimuli, such as eating and exercise. A good night sleep will naturally increase our dopamine levels too.
Music psychologist, Dr Vicky Williamson from Goldsmiths College, University of London welcomed the paper. She said the research did not answer why music was so important to humans but proved that it was. "This paper shows that music is inextricably linked with our deepest reward systems." To view the paper follow this link.
Another study has highlighted and identified the tightly entwined relationship between music and our minds. This was reviewed on the “The Listening Service” podcast on the BBC Sounds 'Is Music Good for You?' broadcast on May 2021, which revealed the extent to how particular music can relax, soothe and calm our brains.
The programme highlighted how music stimulates multiple areas of the brain and can be tailored to meet specific needs, for example, research has found that the part of the music which can help people diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease is the rhythm. Music that helped calm premature babies would be those that emulate the sounds of the womb. Such is the wide choice of music available that can be composed and played on a variety of traditional instruments and simulated sounds on computer programmes.
The effects of music are statistically significant. They can be detected both at micro electric levels where changes in brain waves have been detected and on a structural level where, for example, changes in blood flow have been observed in response to music. However, it must be noted that the reason for these responses is still not yet fully understood.
Music is often used for stress release, mindfulness, and meditation and can help calm us down. A study was conducted to identify the most relaxing piece of music by measuring three key indicators of stress; heart rate, respiration and cortisol (the stress hormone) and was found to reduce the levels in participants in all three areas.
The group that created this piece of music, Marconi Union, composed the track Weightless in collaboration with sound therapists. Its carefully arranged harmonies, rhythms, and bass lines help slow listeners heart rate, reduce blood pressure and lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Listening to that one song "Weightless" resulted in a significant 65 per cent reduction in participants' overall anxiety, and a 35 per cent reduction in their usual physiological resting rates.
It reduced these markers more than any other music in the study and also had a greater effect when compared to massage. These findings were reinforced in 2019 when "Weightless" was successfully used as a pre-operative sedative in the USA.
It is considered so powerful that it is recommended that you do not drive while listening to this track in case it reduces the speed of your response time and adversely affects your drivivng.
To listen to this piece of music or an extended version to help with sleep, visit:
You may already have your “go-to” list of relaxing songs but if not it might be worth trying some of the tracks below compiled by Melanie Curtin who in her blog, invites us to make the most of the powerful effects music can have on our brains and bodies and ultimately how we feel.
Try these out if you feel the need to calm yourself, especially during the exam period or consider compiling your own tracklist for those times when you need a little help to become and stay relaxed:
2. "Electra," by Airstream
3. "Mellomaniac (Chill Out Mix)," by DJ Shah
4. "Watermark," by Enya
5. "Strawberry Swing," by Coldplay
6. "Please Don't Go," by Barcelona
7. "Pure Shores," by All Saints
8. "Someone Like You," by Adele
9. "Canzonetta Sull'aria," by Mozart
10. "We Can Fly," by Rue du Soleil (Café Del Mar)
So, give yourself the permission to indulge and enjoy and take some time out to recharge. We may not fully understand how music relaxes us but we know that it does.
Written by Vivien Farrand Wellbeing Advisor - Faculty of Science