The idea that music can heal the soul or “soothe the savage breast” is well-known. Music’s healing power over the body has also attracted attention from scientists who aim to test this ancient wisdom. A growing body of research supports the claim that music can alleviate physical pain. Studies have shown music to be an effective pain reliever, both on its own and as an adjuvant in connection with other types of therapy. Long-term studies of music therapy in pain management have shown it to be associated with improved quality of life and reduced consumption of pain relievers.
If music is ever to become widely used in pain relief, we need to know more about how and why it has the effects that it does. A closer look at the nature of pain can help us understand music’s role in pain management. The International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as, “an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience association with actual or potential tissue damage.” Pain is both a sensory process felt in the body, and a subjective phenomenon, influenced by the psychological and emotional processes of each individual brain. When the body sustains an injury, nerves relay information about that injury from its site through the brainstem and then on to the brain. As this process occurs, a whole cascade of events plays out in the brain, with a large network of structures and pathways activated. These pathways extend to areas directly related to the processing of emotion, and to different brain areas associated with the various autonomic, affective, cognitive, and motivational aspects of pain behavior. Stress and anxiety exacerbate the experience of pain, so anything that an individual can do to relax will help to alleviate pain.