Highly Sensitive Refuge
A highly sensitive person listening to music

The Science Behind Why Calming Music Is So Soothing for HSPs

Calming music works at a brain level to soothe the highly sensitive system and boost your mood. 

At an artists’ retreat in the small village of Hämeenkyrö, Finland, on an old leather couch, in a room that was once a school, I lie with my hands over my heart. It was mid-January, the room dimly lit by soft lamps as the snow drifted steadily down.

I had spent the day in a silent retreat, along with the other attendees. Nodding quietly to each other as we passed in the kitchen. But never speaking.

After a rich full day of quiet introspection in my bedroom, I was drawn to the sounds of exquisite music floating up through the floorboards.

I went down into the communal living room to discover a fellow resident playing his favorite tracks over the speakers. I laid down on the couch and surrendered to the sound.

There were long, patient, ambient tracks that sunk me deeper into the couch. There were neo-classical masterpieces that left my heart soaring.

By the end, I felt like my rib cage had been rung like a giant bell, with all the music reverberating around my chest. A profound sense of peace, clarity, and inspiration welled up inside me.

This is the power of calming music for a highly sensitive person.

And it’s not just me. Researchers, too, have demonstrated that music has a powerful effect on our bodies, mind, and mood. As both a music composer and highly sensitive person, I can speak to why calming music is so soothing for HSPs, as well as the science behind it.

3 Reasons Why Calming Music Is So Soothing for HSPs

1. Music calms the nervous system.

Depth of processing is a key marker of being a highly sensitive person. Which means that our nervous systems process information more deeply and for longer. It’s common for HSPs to become easily overwhelmed by stress and daily demands.

Soothing the nervous system and becoming calm is vital for highly sensitive people to maintain physical and mental health. And music is a fantastic way to relieve stress.

But why is music so calming?

In a word? Entrainment.

Entrainment refers to the synchronization of organisms to an external perceived rhythm. Our bodies and minds integrate musical patterns in unison with our own biological rhythms. Sometimes those rhythms are obvious, like tapping your foot along with the beat, or dancing the Tango. But some entrainment rhythms are more subtle. Music can entrain our heartbeat, our brain waves, and even our hormones.

For example, researchers at Stanford University found that music with slow beats encourages slow brain waves that are associated with meditative states. (And meditative states are a great way for us sensitive types to decompress!) Similarly, German researchers demonstrated that listening to music lowered cortisol (a stress hormone) during surgery. And a study from Taiwan found that listening to soothing music before bed resulted in significantly better quality sleep.

Bottom line: Music soothes an overwhelmed HSP.

2. Music boosts your mood.

Have you ever felt chills or goosebumps when you listen to really beautiful music? These are called musical frisson, a French word meaning aesthetic chills, and they are a transient emotional response to music or other experiences of beauty. And as my fellow HSPs know, we find beauty in even the smallest of things. As it turns out, these chills are caused by the same feel-good neurochemical triggered by sugar, cocaine, and being in love.

Dopamine.

Dopamine is a critical neurotransmitter for emotional and cognitive functioning. And listening to music you love will make your brain release more of it. In one study, levels of dopamine were found to be up to 9 percent higher when volunteers were listening to music they enjoyed. To determine when dopamine was released, researchers marked when participants felt a shiver. Musical frisson pinpointed the exact moment volunteers felt maximum pleasure.

But who is more likely to experience musical frisson? Studies have shown it’s most likely experienced by people who:

Sounds like a highly sensitive person, right?

Of course, not every highly sensitive person will experience musical frisson. But even if you don’t? There is a definitive link between music and pleasure.

Bottom line: Music makes HSPs feel good.

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3. Music nourishes the HSP soul.

Music expresses the ineffable: It is a complex array of vibration, harmony, and dynamics that is greater than the sum of its parts. It connects us with our emotions, can bond us to other people, trigger nostalgia, and make us feel part of something larger than ourselves.

Being a highly sensitive person can be lonely at times. Because we only make up around 30 percent of the population, our experience is often dismissed and we may experience gaslighting.

And yet music can make us feel less alone — through lyrics that convey how we feel, or patterns that stimulate deep thought, or by soothing our overwhelm. Music touches the edge of mystery. It is a form that understands us. Music often speaks where we cannot.

One of the best things about being a highly sensitive person is how deeply we appreciate beauty, and music can be profoundly moving and nourishing. It can satiate a highly sensitive person’s need for beauty and meaning.

Savoring beauty is not superficial. It isn’t about consumerism or buying luxurious items. Beauty is a portal to deep appreciation. When you immerse yourself in calming music, you’re allowing yourself to just be. To exist in the peace of the present moment. To feel gratitude for the simple pleasures in life.

Bottom line: Music is a nutrient for HSPs.

What Is the Best Calming Music for HSPs?

Now that you know why calming music is so soothing for highly sensitive people, you might be wondering what kind of calming music to listen to.

Firstly, it needs to be music you enjoy. Perhaps you love the gentle nostalgia of lo-fi hip hop. Or perhaps you prefer the undulating flow of instrumental jazz. Or maybe deep, ambient drone is your thing. Experiment with different genres to find the best kind of calming music for you.

Secondly, it needs to be slower paced music.

BPM stands for beats per minute, and in music, it represents the tempo (or how fast/slow the beat is). But BPM can also measure your heart rate, i.e., how many times your heart beats in one minute. Because your heart will synchronise to the beat of the music, having a slower BPM in music will help calm you down.

Music that is between 60-100 BPM is perfect for relaxation because it is the same speed as a resting heart rate. But you don’t need to calculate the exact tempo to know if a track is calming. If the music feels slow, gentle, and soothing, it’s the right tempo for you.

When to Listen to Calming Music as an HSP

The great thing about music is you can listen to it all day, every day. But there are some specific times that calming music will work best.

You could listen to calming music:

  • after a long, draining day to restore your energy and balance
  • before bed for a good night’s sleep
  • while you’re studying or working to help you focus
  • to reduce or relieve pain
  • during travel, to help relieve stress and anxiety

Calming music is a balm, especially for highly sensitive people — it soothes your nervous system, boosts your mood, and fulfills your need for beauty and connection. It’s not always easy to be a highly sensitive person in a world that doesn’t value your sensitivity. But music can make your HSP experience a little easier and a lot more enjoyable.

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