Listen up – a deep focus on music has healing charms

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
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New research reveals people who focus deeply on music can have strong emotional reactions – across the full range of emotions – that can have significant therapeutic benefits.

James Cook University psychology lecturer Dr Amanda Krause led the study that analysed the responses of nearly 190 participants.

She said most everyday music listening is accompanied by other activities and it is far less common that listening is someone’s primary activity, receiving most of their attention.

“But in the Listen Up experience, run by Indigo Project, a mental health organisation in Sydney, people go into a studio where the lights are dimmed and they lie down on cushions and mats and listen to music for about 50 minutes,” said Dr Krause.

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JCU’s Dr Madelyn Pardon, co-author of Listen Up: A case study examination of focused listening, said people experienced an increased mood and decreased levels of stress and arousal after taking part. But it was not simply a matter of people enjoying the music.

“We found people’s emotional responses across the range: negative, positive, evocative and expressive, and sad,” Dr Pardon says. “Some people reported the experience as being emotionally challenging, therapeutic, and physically uncomfortable.”

The researchers said participants characterised their experiences as a cathartic journey resulting in a positive, peaceful, and calm state.

“Our research provides evidence for the emotional and mental health benefits of focused music listening. This type of listening is unusual in today’s music landscape and provides opportunities for meaningful experiences,” said Dr Krause.

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Can music create calm in the classroom?

For teachers considering using music as a tool to help students focus and feel calmer in classrooms, Dr Krause says “music is really good for stress release”.

“Our use of music listening to regulate our emotions is one of the most common reasons people listen to music,” she told EducationDaily.

But she points out that the published research on background music and its impact on focus is mixed.

Although, she says, “there are studies that show that listening to music while working or studying has benefits” and has the potential to help people stay on task, apply better concentration, support memory, or manage fatigue, Dr Krause says that listening to music can also sometimes hinder what you’re doing and decrease productivity by pulling attention away from what you should be focused on.

Dr Krause says there are two things to keep in mind when thinking about its impacts:

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  1. The music – “You’ll need to find the right kind of music to keep it in the background. One of the reasons it might be distracting is if it draws too much of your attention away from your task. You’ll want to think about the music you like (something you’re familiar with but don’t love or hate), its genre (something that doesn’t change too abruptly), and whether you can listen to music that has lyrics. In fact, some argue that you should either listen to instrumental music or listen to music with lyrics in a language you don’t understand,” she says.
  2. “It’s going to depend on the individual. Our personalities might be able to tolerate more or less noise in our environment.”

So, music doesn’t always work the same way for everyone.

“But when chosen carefully you can use it to your advantage,” she told EducationDaily.

“In this study, people actually commented on the fact that the type of music they heard wasn’t necessarily their preferred genre. But people still had these really positive experiences. If we look at broader, additional research that I have done, we see that something to consider is whether or not you’re choosing the music. If you like what you’re hearing, you’ll pay more attention to it and you’ll like it more.”

Can heavy metal music be soothing?

When looking at the research on music as a distractor from pain and stress relief or sleep, Dr Krause says “it’s common to consider the role of classical music”.

“But instead of focusing on the genre, it’s important that the person listening likes the music. So classical music can work as a sleep aid but so can heavy metal – depending on the person.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]