Illustration: Kieran Blakey

The Nuance

Music Can Get Us Through This

Why a good tune is so good at relieving stress, anxiety, sadness, and other negative emotional states

Markham Heid
Published in
6 min readSep 10, 2020

Surgical operations tend to be stressful experiences, and that stress can cause problems.

“The outcome of a surgery is very much predicted by the state a patient is in right before the operation — their emotional and physical state,” says Daniel Levitin, PhD, a neuroscientist at McGill University in Canada and author of, among other books, This Is Your Brain on Music.

Anxiousness can elevate a person’s heart rate and blood pressure in ways that slow wound healing, delay recovery, and increase the risk of infection. Heavy pre-op jitters can also interfere with the onset of surgical anesthesia. “So those preoperative minutes are crucial to the long-term success of the operation,” Levitin says.

To counteract these risks, doctors often give their patients a mild sedative such as Valium — something to settle the heart and nerves. But for a 2009 study, a team at Södertälje Hospital in Sweden took a different tack: Instead of administering a drug, they had patients listen to relaxing music for roughly 20 to 40 minutes before going under the knife. (The patients could choose from several genres of music, such as classical, soft pop, and jazz, but the specific tracks were preselected by a professional music therapist.) Compared to a second group of surgery patients who received the usual drug sedative, the group who listened to calming music experienced a more pronounced pre-op reduction in anxiety, the study found.

The Swedish team’s finding is a common one. According to a 2013 Cochrane review of 26 studies involving more than 2,000 people, music reliably reduces anxiousness among people preparing to undergo surgical operations. And the emotional benefits of music are not confined to the OR. The field of music therapy has exploded in recent decades, and trained music therapists are now helping people manage anxiety disorders and other physical or psychological conditions — everything from pain disorders to PTSD.

“People use music therapeutically all the time in their life,” says Peter Jampel, an adjunct associate professor in the Department of…



Markham Heid

I’m a long-time contributor at TIME and other media orgs. I write mostly about health. I grew up in Michigan, but these days I live in southwest Germany.

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