How Music Can Help With Stress Reduction

What is stress, and how can music help us cope better when we are experiencing stress?

The NIH describes three types of stress: routine stress related to work, family and other daily responsibilities, stress from sudden negative change such as loss of a job, divorce or illness, and traumatic stress. With chronic stress, the hormones released to face immediate short-term threats, life-saving in short bursts, can suppress functions such as immunity and the normal workings of your digestive, excretory and reproductive systems. “Because the source of stress tends to be more constant…the body gets no clear signal to return to normal functioning. Over time continued strain on your body from routine stress may [make you more susceptible] to serious health problems such as heart disease…diabetes, depression…and other illnesses.”

Symptoms include irritability, sleep disruption, anxiety or panic attacks, allergic reactions such as eczema or asthma, as well as headaches, chest pain or stomach problems.

 Coping tips include:

  • Seek professional help
  • Get health care for existing or new health problems
  • Stay in touch with your social support system: friends, family, community or religious organizations
  • Recognize signs of your body’s response to stress
  • Set priorities, decide what can wait, and say no to new tasks if they overload you
  • Note what you have accomplished rather than what you have yet to do
  • Cultivate a sense of humor
  • Exercise regularly. Be physically active.
  • Schedule regular times for relaxing activities
  • Try stress coping programs such as meditation, yoga or Tai Ji

But how can music help?

A common denominator in stress reduction is increasing the oxygenation of the bloodstream, which in turn reduces the level of stress hormones. Exercising and deep breathing, properly done, can  both be very effective; using music and music activities to exercise and to practice deep breathing can encourage you to do both more frequently, and for longer periods of time.

Using music to support your goals is also effective for another reason:

  • Your body contains an autonomic mechanism that syncs you up with strong external rhythms, pulses or beats, a phenomenon known as entrainment. When we entrain, we begin to match the rhythm of our environment. If we are watching a parade, we may notice that we fall into step with the rhythm of the music being played. When we work out, we may notice that certain tempos or rhythms in the music make us walk a bit faster or work harder or longer.
  • If we are looking for music to relax or slow down, we need to look for music that is either in a slower tempo or that has unmetered, sustained tones. It may be softer and use strings instead of brass instruments. If it uses voices, they may be lower in pitch. The texture may be simpler, with few sudden changes in tempo, dynamics or instrumentation. Melodies may be stepwise, with fewer big skips or leaps.

Here are some ways to reduce stress, using music:

  • Singing with a choir, or improvising over a drone or other accompaniment
  • Playing a wind instrument
  • Chanting
  • Eurhythmics (movement to music)
  • Guided Imagery and Music (GIM)
  • Music Assisted Relaxation (MAR)
  • Progressive Relaxation
  • Journaling or drawing with music
  • Drumming
  • Exercising (walking, aerobics, dancing)

You can explore each of those options in other posts on this site, or visit