Music makes her feel seen.
Twenty-four-year-old Jewellyn Barboza, a public relations professional based in Dubai, has an assortment of playlists to beat different kinds of stress. “I have one with really soft songs, when my mind feels too loud,” she explains. “There’s a playlist with hype songs for when I’m overthinking and I want something loud.” Lyrics are paramount, she elaborates. The lyrics need to resonate when she’s low, and here she mentions BTS, the global K-Pop phenomenon. “It makes me feel seen.”
In short, music has a complex impact on her. “Sometimes it is encouraging, when things feel bleak. Sometimes it feels validating, and sometimes it feels like a reality check,” she adds. Barboza enjoys singing along to her playlists, as she becomes actively engaged with the tracks. “Music draws the anxiety out of me,” she says.
On the other hand, Anthon Garcia, a communications practitioner from Philippines based in Dubai, enjoys listening to music to keep his anxiety at bay about work or challenges on the roads. “When I have trouble sleeping at night, I listen to Solfeggio frequencies, which helps induce sleeping,” he adds.
From personal experience, I can say it soothes, comforts, and also is a balm to suppressed anger. In fact, my friend and I once curated a ‘Rage’ playlist, filled with pounding songs to help us battle the stress of work deadlines. More like a mix of Linkin Park, Metallica, and some instrumentals from Game of Thrones to get your day moving.
So, you would be a little hard-pressed to find many people on subways, jogging or even the professional workplace, without their earphones. Why do people feel like this about music? What is it about music that comforts frazzled nerves, or pushes them to work towards a certain goal?
The impact of sound
The basis of music, which consists of tone and rhythm, is deeply embedded in human physiology.
“The work of our heart and our breathing take place in rhythmic processes,” says Maida Kajevic, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Center. “When we speak, we use tones that differ in volume - from quiet to very loud. We cannot always explain or express our feelings in words; sometimes our inner conflicts are beyond rationalisation, but then we can explore and resolve them through musical expression,” she says.
Sound vibrations affect all processes in the brain, and this impacts the cognitive, emotional and physical functions of a person. “Sound affects body cells and organs, and the music affects the state of consciousness. Leading to the harmonisation of the right and left sides of the brain, blood pressure, circulation, breathing and other processes that take place in the body,” she says.
Sound affects body cells and organs, and the music affects the state of consciousness. Leading to the harmonisation of the right and left sides of the brain, blood pressure, circulation, breathing and other processes that take place in the body
What happens when we listen to music?
In simple words, we feel good. We enjoy the rhythm of tapping our feet, singing along, or singing with others.
This ‘feeling good’ effect emanates from the release of dopamine, a feel-good chemical. As you’re aware, when we’re stressed, the level of cortisol increases, explains Kajevic. Normally, cortisol, which is the ‘stress hormone’, helps us find focus and energy to deal with a difficult situation. However, when the body is exposed to cortisol for a prolonged period of time, it causes a state of fight, flight or stress. Our blood pressure and heart increase. This kind of chronic stress can consequently result in anxiety disorders, depression, chronic pain or more.
So, when we listen to music, which is normally something that most of us enjoy, dopamine is released, adds Sneha John, a child psychologist at Camali Clinic - Medcare Medical Centre Jumeirah. Whenever people say that “music calms me down”, it means that the dopamine is combating the excess cortisol, she explains. The cortisol levels reduce, gradually. Music affects the amount of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, that the body releases, and reducing these hormones can help relieve symptoms of anxiety. However, it’s not always an instant effect, she warns. It also depends on how stressed the person really is.
‘Restoring internal safety’
Sometimes, all it takes, is a brief instrumental track.
Twenty-six year old Meera Kumar from Abu Dhabi, shares her playlists that are filled with calming instrumentals from popular Hollywood films. She prefers these tracks to songs with lyrics; they possess more meaning for her.
“One of my favourites is the Arrival of the Birds from the film Theory of Everything,” she explains. The quiet, soft notes from the track helped her during the anxiety of university exams and writing her dissertation, three years ago. “That’s when I turned to instrumentals. They feel safer for me than the actual lyrics themselves,” she says. Another track that she listens to often is the piano love theme from the blockbuster Titanic.
There’s a reason why calming music is balm for the soul. Listening to calming music activates the parasympathetic nervous system in the body, also known as the soothing system, explains UAE-based psychologist Farah Dahabi. This restores the sense of internal safety and relaxes the body. “It has the power to reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, promote muscle relaxation and improve sleep quality,” she says. People often naturally synchronise their breath with the rhythm of a relaxing songs, which promotes a sense of tranquility. “It activates the body’s soothing system,” she says.
Music has the power to reduce heart rate, lower blood pressure, promote muscle relaxation and improve sleep quality. It activates the body’s soothing system.
Dahabi has advice for those who enjoy calming music. “You can create a relaxing playlist that can include binaural beats [similar beats with different tonalities], nature sounds, slower tempo music, or 'feel good' songs. You may also include music connected to a particularly pleasurable experience or time in your life that can trigger feelings of joy, as music is interconnected to memory,” she advises. Combining music, movement, and deep breathing can also further promote music's calming effect on the mind and body.
Does music have the same impact on everyone?
Twenty-eight-year-old Lavanya Dubey from Abu Dhabi is rather indifferent to music, as she says. “I mean that I appreciate songs when I hear them in clubs, or when it plays on the radio, but I don’t listen to it voluntarily at work, or in the taxi. My thoughts are too distracting,” she says. So, music doesn’t have much of an effect on her, even though she has frequent bouts of anxiety. Instead, Dubey finds peace when she’s immersed in artwork. “I need complete silence, when I’m painting. Music just distracts me,” she says.
Music is a deeply personal choice. Dopamine is released when the person knows what feels good for them. It is about whatever they associate with as good. They find comfort in that. So when they feel good, the chemical is released.
It’s a deeply personal choice, explains John. “Dopamine is released when the person knows what feels good for them. It is about whatever they associate with as good. They find comfort in that. So the more that they feel good, the more that this chemical is released. For others, it could be like having a good meal, or going to the gym,” she says. There are different trajectories where dopamine can be released in different ways. These are just ways to help calm the person, and music is just one of them.