Paolo Rossi Castelli 31 March 2022 16 min read

Music and audio beats against anxiety

A study by Ryerson University in Toronto shows that sounds with a pre-set frequency and volume, combined with music chosen by AI, tangibly enhance the calming effect.

According to all the surveys there is a price that many people are paying as a result of the pandemic, and which will only increase due to the war in Ukraine: increased stress, depression and anxiety.

Together with medication and psychotherapy, an approach based on music, combined with sounds at particular frequencies could help to alleviate these feelings. This is suggested by a study published in the scientific journal PLoS One, in which neurologists and psychologists from Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, treated 163 people taking anti-anxiety drugs with different 'protocols' in two groups (one for mild and another for severe anxiety): listening to music together with auditory beat stimulation (ABS); listening to a sound called pink noise, which features particularly low frequencies; or listening to music or ABS alone, as a control.

ABS stands for Auditory Beat Stimulation and involves a series of sound signals at a pre-set volume and close frequencies, which are 'administered' in such a way as to selectively stimulate the cochlea (the part of the inner ear that converts sounds into nerve impulses) and, from there, the auditory cerebral cortex. ABS can affect only one ear (monaural), or both (biaural), and has been used for several years as a tool to trigger changes in brain activity and to test the brain's ability to hear. Thanks to this stimulation, it is possible to analyse signal transmission and processing.

However, certain types of ABS are also being explored as possible treatments to alleviate anxiety and depression, as they have a calming effect under specific conditions.

The 'cocktail' to calm anxiety
Canadian researchers wanted to see if adding other 'ingredients' to music would enhance its effect compared to music alone or pink noise alone.

They asked participants to listen to the sounds suggested by an AI platform called LUCID, which adjusts the type of music according to the mood and preferences of the listener, in 24-minute sessions. This was done with closed eyes, and directly from an app, alone or with the addition of ABS, or pink noise.

So, in all of them, the so-called somatic anxiety (a set of physical and psychological parameters that define the level of anxiety) was measured.

The results were that people suffering from mild to moderate anxiety, both somatic and cognitive (i.e. linked to particular thought processes), benefited most from the customised music-ABS combination, followed by music alone and, as expected, by pink noise. However, in highly anxious subjects, there were no such marked differences between music alone or music combined with ABS.

A versatile therapy
However, overall, data shows that music, with or without ABS, chosen according to the features and needs of each patient, can be a very versatile, effective and extremely cost-effective therapy for combating anxiety.

Studies on larger groups will be needed, but if confirmed by more data, and if apps with AI systems like LUCID, applied to music, were made available to everybody, this could be an important aid for many people, whenever they feel the need, with just a smartphone.

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Paolo Rossi Castelli

Journalist since 1983, Paolo has been dealing with scientific divulgation for years, especially in the fields of medicine and biology. He is the creator of Sportello Cancro, the site created by corriere.it on oncology in collaboration with the Umberto Veronesi Foundation. He collaborated with the pages of the Science of Corriere della Sera for several years. He is the founder and director of PRC-Comunicare la scienza.