Music as medicine – can music and sound be used to treat anxiety?

Music can profoundly affect our mood. Now that technology has enabled us to set our own personal soundtracks wherever we go, we commonly match our beats to our activities – heavy on the drums while we smash through a workout session, upbeat pop to see us through the dreariest of the household chores, and something smooth and sultry to set the tone of a candlelit dinner.

But what if our response to music runs far deeper than we realise? Publishing their findings in PLOS ONE, researchers from Ryerson University, Canada, say that personally tailored music programs could effectively treat the symptoms of anxiety – an affliction that has been steadily growing in adolescent and young adult populations over recent decades.

We’re not just talking about putting on your favourite playlist to help soothe your jangled nerves. In this study, researchers used a machine learning algorithm developed by LUCID to generate a personalised music sequence designed to manipulate an individual’s mental state.

The algorithm first matches the current emotional state of the user, then predicts the optimal sequence of tracks – all instrumental compositions or nature sounds – that will most effectively begin to gradually shift the listener’s mental state towards tranquillity.

Alongside these mellowing melodies, the researchers tested the effectiveness of a technique known as auditory beat stimulation (ABS) that uses sound waves to produce tones and beats at highly specific frequencies that trigger changes in brain activity.

In the current study, the researchers randomly assigned participants who were taking anti-anxiety medications to treatments involving LUCID music therapy, ABS, a combination of both, or pink noise – background noises similar to white noise. For each treatment, participants were asked to close their eyes and listen to 24 minutes of their assigned audio program.

For participants with moderate anxiety, a combination of both tailored music and ABS most successfully quelled the physical symptoms of anxiety, as well as helping to tone down the damaging thoughts and feelings associated with this unsettled mental state. For those with more severe anxiety, music alone proved to be the most therapeutic.

Given the troubling times we find ourselves in, the researchers believe the demonstrated effectiveness of such a simple and easily distributable method of treating anxiety disorders is welcome news.

“With the pandemic and remote work, there has been a remarkable uptick in the use of digital health tools to support mental health,” the authors say. “The results of this clinical trial indicate great promise for the use of digital health tools, such as LUCID’s digital music therapy, in the management of anxiety and other mental health conditions.

“The findings from this research are exciting as they indicate that personalised music shows great promise in effectively reducing anxiety in specific segments of the population that suffer from anxiety. Hopefully, with additional research, we can help build a solid evidence base which further supports the use of personalised music as an additional tool in the clinician’s toolbox that can be used to help reduce anxiety in the patient population.”

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