Can Your Favourite Music Reduce Pain?

Looking at the science behind the story

Gideon M-K; Health Nerd


Pictured: Capturing the ephemeral on a page. Photo by Marius Masalar on Unsplash

Music is a wonderful thing. There’s something inherently human in our shared love of sound. Whether it be Chopin or the latest Olivia Rodrigo song, there’s a deep sense of connection that we can only achieve when listening to a piece of music that we all love.

And, according to recent headlines, music can also treat pain as effectively as common painkillers like Advil.

Pictured: Painkilling? Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash

If true, this would be, if not huge, at least quite meaningful. Obviously it’s not possible to listen to music in every situation in which you might be in pain, but if music was such an effective treatment for pain it would be an incredibly useful tool in our arsenal, not least because pain is generally very hard to treat.

As someone who experiences chronic pain, I personally found the stories to be very interesting — this could be directly impactful for my life! Unfortunately, this new study doesn’t show that music is helpful for pain. At best, it just shows that when people listen to their favourite song they are a bit happier than when they listen to nothing at all.

The Science

The study in question is a new paper published in the journal Frontiers in Pain Research. In the paper, researchers took a group of 63 mostly university students, and gave them a mild pain stimulus which was described as similar to holding a “hot cup of coffee against the skin”. While doing so, these people listened to four different things — either their favourite track that they picked themselves, a random soothing piece of music, a garbled soundtrack of noise, or nothing at all. People then rated their pain intensity and unpleasantness on a scale from 0–100, as well as giving some ratings of how happy the sound they were listening to made them.

The results were, frankly, quite uninspiring as far as medical treatments go. There were no differences between the control group and either the soothing music or garbled noise group on pain intensity or unpleasantness. However, there was a fairly large reduction in self-reported pain…