Competing for Attention: Music vs. Pain

Jenny Kliever
7 February 2012

Many studies have explored the effects of music on the brain. Some claim that listening to music promotes efficient studying or that playing an instrument enhances mathematical ability. Others refute all such claims. The debate over the effects of music on the brain continues and a recent study conducted in Utah contributes by showing that music can be effective in relieving pain.

It is important to understand why we feel pain. Imagine stepping barefoot on a sharp stone. Although your outward reaction would be simple – to withdraw your foot and maybe squeal in pain – in reality the information is being analysed two different ways. The first is a simple reflex arc from your foot, to the spine, and back to the foot. The second processes would be taking place in your brain and body. Signals get sent from the foot and travel via the spinal cord to the brain. In the brain, specific neurons are activated and signals (called impulses) are sent along specific neuron pathways. Eventually, a physical and emotional response is caused – namely, removing your foot and squealing.

Fast Fact: Neurons are nerve cells that make up the nervous system. There are three types: sensory neurons carry signals from cells in the body to the brain, motor neurons carry signals from the brain to the body’s muscles, and interneurons pass signals between various neurons in the body.

Researchers from the Pain Research Centre at the University of Utah conducted a study in which 143 people were told to listen to music and pick out tones that stood out from the rest. While they were doing this, small pain shocks were administered to their fingertips.

Fast Fact: The human brain alone contains about 100 billion neurons.

The results showed that as the subjects’ focus on the music increased, the amount of pain they felt decreased. But how can such a simple distraction actually diminish pain? The answer lies in the brain.

Fast Fact: The brain itself cannot feel any pain because it lacks pain receptors.

Music and pain activate some of the same neuron pathways in the brain, causing the two signals to “compete”. Thus, as the number of music signals in the brain increases, the pain signals have less opportunity to activate certain neuron paths, causing you to feel less pain!

It is important to remember though that music has only been tested as a “pain killer” under specific lab conditions. As such, all that can say definitively is that music and pain affect some of the same areas of the brain, further proving that the brain is the most complex, entangled and miraculous thing about us.

Discover other ways music can affect your brain by checking out this article by Karen Willoughby.

Learn More!

The Anatomy of Pain


Bradshaw, D.H. et al. 2011. Individual Differences in the Effects of Music Engagement on Responses to Painful Stimulation. The Journal of Pain (12) 12:1262-1273. Retrieved from Medical News Today.

Article first published February 7, 2012.

Jenny Kliever

Jenny is an enthusiastic leader with a B.Sc. in Physics, who currently works as a headhunter for the pharmaceutical industry. Her job is to recruit clinical professionals for large pharmaceutical and medical device companies. Writing and editing is a passionate hobby of hers. She is currently working towards a certification in creative writing and has been writing and editing for CurioCity since 2011. She is also on the board of directors for Let's Talk Science UofT chapter.

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