Why Music Might Increase Your Resilience to Chronic Pain

I’m a musician. Not professionally of course, but it is definitely part of my identity. I began playing the piano at age 5. I took lessons until I graduated from high school. I took practical and theory exams with Conservatory Canada (formerly the Western Board of Music) to the point that I have Grade 8 practical and Grade 4 theory. In junior high and high school I played the alto sax in band and jazz band. In high school I sang in the choir, played they keyboard for one of our vocal jazz groups, sang in another vocal jazz group, and always had a role in the school musicals. To this day, I still play my piano daily and sing along with songs as they come on the radio. I can play about 3 chords on the guitar, and I swear I’m going to take lessons one day! As a mental health professional I have also learned a lot about music and resilience.

Check out this podcast episode with singer-songwriter Sarah Luby who has T1D and UCTD.

Resilience can be defined as the ability to adjust to change or difficulties in life. Resilience utilizes our emotional strengths and our awareness of and ability to use our coping mechanisms to overcome adversity (Merriam-Webster, 2021). Resilience is also key to dealing effectively with chronic illness and chronic pain. Why? Because things are constantly changing and adapting. We have strong emotions and thoughts about our situations and these can often lead to depression and anxiety as well. We need to and want to be able to cope with what is happening. Yet many of us struggle with resilience for several different reasons, from childhood experiences to the pain itself and a lot in between. The good thing is we can learn to develop more resilience.

There is a ton of research on the benefits of music, such as increasing self-awareness, being more socially connected to others, and it helps to regulate mood (Schafer et al, 2013). It also enhances self-regulation, initiative and helps to strengthen relationships with others, not just connect us with them. Resilience skills in general do the same with our self-regulation, awareness, mood, initiative and relationships. There is a lot of overlap, so it makes sense that music would be helpful for this. In terms of how music builds resilience specifically, there is the idea of ‘musicking’ or our musical life in terms of an I-Thou relationship (this is an interesting existential idea that allows us to engage in perspective-taking, which in itself increases resilience as I’ve seen first-hand with my clients). The relationships of sounds, bodies, and psyches as presented in musical compositions/song builds this perspective-taking ability (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Beyond this, musician can communicate musicality in order to enliven both themselves and listeners. (Malloch & Trevarthen, 2018). Therefore, listening to music, not just playing it, can build reslience.

In a clinical setting, music can be used in two different way. Music Therapists use specific music interventions to help individuals with their specific goals, mood regulation, resilience, etc. in an individual or group therapy setting. There is specific training to be able to do this. The other is “music for wellness” which is having musical experiences – listening, playing, etc. – for the purpose of wellbeing and general functioning. As I’m not a music therapist, I encourage my clients to engage in the latter, which is also how I engage with music.

I have since had my actual upright grand piano shipped to me. So much better to play on!

Music for chronic pain has also been studied. For example, in a palliative care setting, music was found to actually decrease chronic pain in patients, which I found super interesting. This really ties into the resiliency. Typically when we are more resilient our pain either actually decreases or just doesn’t bother us as much. Honestly, I’m fine with either scenario. The last few days my knee has been hurting a lot. I’m not sure if it’s related to my UCTD or my hyper-mobile knee joints (my physio thinks they’re related to each other). I do notice that when I play the piano, or even just listen to music while I’m on a walk, my pain is less noticeable. Perhaps because of distraction or perhaps because the music is building my ability to be resilient, not just in those moments but throughout life. Take a listen to this podcast episode with musician and music teacher Melissa, who has multiple chronic illnesses.

Pick a song to listen to, play, or sing along with today and see if that helps you to keep making the most of it!