• Scientists say listening to music reduces stress and even pain.
  • Last year, 57% of Americans said music helped their mental health, more than watching TV or doing exercise.
  • Researchers have discovered the best songs for relaxation.

The power of music to reduce stress and improve mental health has been recognized for some time.

Scientists say music distracts us from our worries, while a study by Queen Mary University of London demonstrated that playing music during and after medical operations calmed patients and even reduced their pain.

More recently, a 2020 study found that 57% of Americans listen to music to manage stressful situations, compared to 40% who find exercise helpful and 33% who use video games to unwind.

this chart shows the most popular media activities for relieving stress as of September 2020
Listening to music tops this chart as the most popular activity for stress relief.
Image: Statista

So how does it work?

Music’s ability to help us relax rests on the fact that it is a non-verbal and pre-verbal language connecting people to experiences in their early life, writes provisional psychologist Heather Craig in Positive Psychology.

“It allows all people to interact in a more emotional, relationship-oriented way than may be possible relying on verbal language,” she adds. Professor Victoria Tischler of the UK’s Exeter University says music’s emotional connection is at the heart of its success in reducing stress.

“This can be therapeutic for the songwriter or composer and also the listener who identifies with similar experiences, and so reduces feelings of social isolation,” Prof Tischler, told the i newspaper.

this is Adele performing, who sings one of the top stress relieving songs
Adele’s ‘Someone Like You’ is one of the top stress relieving songs.
Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

“Listening to music together at a concert or a festival increases feelings of social connectedness, this elevates mood and builds relationships and connections that are protective against mental distress.”

Dr David Lewis of the Mindlab at the UK’s Sussex University had already conducted research that showed that listening to music was more relaxing than drinking a cup of tea, walking and playing video games. He then set out to identify the best tunes for stress reduction.

Which songs are the most effective?

Dr Lewis and his team examined 16 relaxing songs for their ability to relieve stress, and compared their effects against a massage, as well as a specially commissioned spa track.

this is a list of the top 16 songs for relieving stress, with Someone Like You by Adele at number 1
According to a test, these are the 16 most relaxing songs.
Image: MindLab

By measuring the effect of the music on participants’ heart rate, breathing and skin conductance – a measure of stress in the whole body – the researchers could establish which songs had the greatest impact in terms of relaxation.

this shows a biometrically calculated relaxation score for all the music in the study
These are the songs from the study which had the greatest relaxation impact.
Image: MindLab

While all of the tracks decreased levels of the stress hormone ‘cortisol’ in the 20 participants, they were no match for either the massage, or the spa track.

'Weightless' by Macaroni Union, which was commissioned by Radox Spa, achieved a relaxation score of 73%, nearly 11 percentage points higher than any of the other relaxation tracks, as well as a 6% increase on the relaxing effects of a massage.

Indeed, the song is so effective at reducing stress, Dr Lewis told the i newspaper, that he “would advise against driving while listening to the song because it could be dangerous”.

Why is ‘Weightless’ so relaxing?

The song’s secret is its rhythm, says Lyz Cooper, founder of the British Academy of Sound Therapy, who led the commissioning team. It slows gradually from 60 to 50 beats per minute, resulting in a matching slow-down in the listener’s own heart rate.

“It takes about five minutes for this process, known as entrainment, to occur,” Cooper told Forbes magazine. “And there is no repeating melody, which allows your brain to completely switch off because you are no longer trying to predict what is coming next.”

What is the World Economic Forum doing about mental health?

One in four people will experience mental illness in their lives, costing the global economy an estimated $6 trillion by 2030.

Mental ill-health is the leading cause of disability and poor life outcomes in young people aged 10–24 years, contributing up to 45% of the overall burden of disease in this age-group. Yet globally, young people have the worst access to youth mental health care within the lifespan and across all the stages of illness (particularly during the early stages).

In response, the Forum has launched a global dialogue series to discuss the ideas, tools and architecture in which public and private stakeholders can build an ecosystem for health promotion and disease management on mental health.

One of the current key priorities is to support global efforts toward mental health outcomes - promoting key recommendations toward achieving the global targets on mental health, such as the WHO Knowledge-Action-Portal and the Countdown Global Mental Health

Read more about the work of our Platform for Shaping the Future of Health and Healthcare, and contact us to get involved.

'Airstream' by Electra was found to be the second-most relaxing tune, while 'Sǣglopur' by Sigur Rôs was the least.

The top nine tracks are available as a playlist on Spotify.