Individual Differences in the Effects of Music Engagement on Responses to Painful Stimulation

Published:November 10, 2011DOI:


      Engaged attention, including music listening, has shown mixed results when used as a method for reducing pain. Applying the framework of constructivism, we extend the concept of engagement beyond attention/distraction to include all cognitive and emotional/motivational processes that may be recruited in order to construct an alternative experience to pain and thus reduce pain. Using a music-listening task varying in task demand, we collected stimulus-evoked potentials, pupil dilation, and skin conductance responses to noxious electrocutaneous stimulations as indicators of central and peripheral arousal, respectively. Trait anxiety (Spielberger State-Trait Anxiety Inventory) and absorption (Tellegen Absorption Scale) provided indicators of individual differences. One hundred and fifty-three healthy, normal volunteers participated in a test session in which they received 3 stimulus intensity levels while listening to background tones (No Task) or performing a music-listening task. Linear slopes indicating net engagement (change in stimulus arousal relative to task performance) decreased with increasing task demand and stimulus level for stimulus-evoked potentials. Slopes for pupil dilation response and skin conductance response varied with task demand, anxiety, and absorption, with the largest engagement effect occurring for high anxiety/high absorption participants. Music engagement reduces pain responses, but personality factors like anxiety and absorption modulate the magnitude of effect.


      Engaging in music listening can reduce responses to pain, depending on the person: people who are anxious and can become absorbed in activities easily may find music listening especially effective for relieving pain. Clinicians should consider patients’ personality characteristics when recommending behavioral interventions like music listening for pain relief.

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