Music for Relaxation: A Comparison Across Two Age Groups

Between my YouTube playlists, music-streaming apps and good old-fashioned mixed CDs, I have well over a dozen playlists labeled some variant of “Music for Relaxation.”  In fact, as I write this, my headphones are playing a droning tune from a Spotify playlist called “Meditation Music.” How many of us use this music, in the foreground or background, to relax, go to sleep, concentrate and focus? What are the characteristics of this type of music that make it the best for accomplishing these things? In a study from the UK, four researchers analyzed different styles of music marketed as relaxation music, and the results show just how your age may determine which Relaxation Playlist you choose next.

From ancient days, rhythm and music were used to induce trance-like states for healing and spiritual benefits. This repetitive sound (drumming or chanting) is a predecessor to what was became known as binaural music in the 1800s. By sending different frequencies (Hertz) into your two different ears (hence the bi- in binaural), your brainwaves are entrained to the frequency difference between the two. For more information on the science behind this, you can read this article from Psychology Today. If you’re listening to these modern meditation playlists through headphones, chances are your brain is already being tuned to these binaural beats. Find examples of this type of music by Google-ing “meditation binaural music (MBM),” or follow this link to find the exact musical pieces used in this study.

In this study published in the Journal of Music Therapy, individuals from two different age groups (18 to 25 years, and 50 to 80 years) reported on their experience listening to meditative binaural music, and also to calm classical music.  Researchers took evidence of their physiological arousal, emotional arousal and alertness vs relaxation. The listeners also reported on their feelings of comfort, positivity, and present-mindedness pertaining to the music. Results show that younger listeners reported a significantly higher sense of calm listening to the meditative binaural music, than classical music, with MBM scoring high in positivity and low in arousal. On the contrary, the older adults evaluated the low-arousal classical music as most calming and comforting.

We can translate this research into use in music therapy when selecting music for our clients working toward goals relating to anxiety, pain and depression. While both genres of music resulted in higher self-reports of relaxation for both age groups, to achieve the best results, consider your age next time you choose your playlist.  

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By Kristen Lynn Pugh, MT-BC

Lee-Harris, et al. “Music for Relaxation: A Comparison Across Two Age Groups.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, The Royal Society, 1 Oct. 2018,