By Trisha Iyer
Stress is a fixture in our lives. We have growing responsibilities. We’re starting to ask—or maybe, college counselors are asking us—deeper questions about ourselves rather than just the ol’ reliable, “What do I want to be when I grow up?”
So here’s a quick science lesson on stress. Our brains produce 5 types of brain waves: alpha, beta, delta, theta, and gamma. These waves are electrical impulses between neurons and are used for communication; each type of wave has a different effect on your body and brain’s ability to function. During times of stress, your brain’s alpha waves are reduced. To get back to a relaxed state, we have one goal: increase those alpha waves.
Many people’s go-to solution is meditation, which increases these waves by encouraging you to stop focusing on negative, stress-inducing thoughts and replace them with other, calmer ones. If meditation works for you, that’s wonderful and I’m jealous, because I cannot keep my mind from wandering for more than ten minutes. For the rest of us plebeians, meditation can be hard to get into because it takes a lot of practice to stop drifting into cycles of thoughts that can leave you even more stressed out than before. Another solution which requires less willpower and may be easier to integrate into your lifestyle is music.
There are a few reasons why listening to music is such an elegant solution. It’s accessible: YouTube, Spotify, and many other services give many people a way to instantly reach for music when they need it. And we do need it—compared to the negative emotions you might be feeling because of a bad day or some similar circumstance, Olivia Rodrigo shouting the chorus of “Deja Vu” isn’t such a bad thing to have stuck in your head, is it? Music fills your head with something other than whatever thoughts are weighing on you.
And the science agrees. When music is played, the brain of the listener falls into a rhythm that matches the song’s beat. When synchronized with music playing at around 60 beats per minute (BPM), the brain produces alpha brainwaves, which are defined to have frequencies from 8-14 hertz, or cycles per second, and are optimal for relaxing both the brain and the body. Researchers at Stanford University have said that “listening to music seems to be able to change brain functioning to the same extent as medication.”
There are certain types of soundtracks that can guarantee results regardless of music taste: stringed instruments and recordings of natural sounds—yes, like a rain machine—have been proven to consistently bring calm to any listeners.
Classical music is also highly effective. A study of 36 participants conducted by the University of California at Irvine showed that listening to Mozart significantly increased spatial reasoning skills for at least 10-15 minutes. Scientific studies investigating the effects of music on a healthy brain—any music, not just Mozart—have often used Mozart’s Sonata in D Major for Two Pianos K448 as their go-to music to play for subjects of the study, and the practice became so widespread it came to be called The Mozart Effect.
Further research has shown that success in bringing brain waves onto the optimal alpha level does not tangibly vary based on specific music selections. A holistic approach works the best: music that you already enjoy produces the requisite alpha waves to feel relaxed and improve brain health.
I polled people about what’s on their comfort playlists, and three genres were consistently mentioned. If you need a recommendation for the most helpful music to destress, indie rock, folk, and electric pop/EDM are popular places to start.
And finally, the perpetual plague of a teenager is not just managing stress and juggling a workload, but finding time to properly rest. To fall asleep more quickly and enjoy a recommended 8-10 hours of sleep, you can try to trick your brain by inducing sleep’s corresponding mental state. In a state of rest, the brain functions on a delta brainwave, which has a frequency of 5 hZ. This state can be reached through listening to calming music or white noise in a relaxed position, though it may take up to 45 minutes to reach the level of a delta brainwave and slip into sleep.
BPM probably does not factor into how you curate your playlists, and tricking your brain into being happier by taking advantage of how it functions may seem hard to prove in efficacy. Yet, you don’t have to drastically change your life choices. Instead, try applying this information for yourself. Taking note of a song’s rhythm—along with whether it contains specific sounds, like those of nature or of an elegant guitar solo—can help you make more mindful, reliably soothing choices when you turn to music to de-stress. Choosing the music you like, with some backing from science, can be an act of self-care you might look forward to each day.
Unless you are a Belieber, in which case, please do not choose to play the music you like, for the health of yourself and the people around you.
Kučikienė, Domantė, and Rūta Praninskienė. “The Impact of Music on the Bioelectrical Oscillations of the Brain.” Acta Medica Lituanica, Lithuanian Academy of Sciences Publishers, 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6130927/.
Saarman, Emily, and Emily Saarman. “Feeling the Beat: Symposium Explores the Therapeutic Effects of Rhythmic Music.” Stanford University, 31 May 2006, news.stanford.edu/news/2006/may31/brainwave-053106.html.