Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


musicpill2

Musical Meds

• November 19, 2012 • 4:00 AM

New research on endorphins finds people have higher pain thresholds immediately after performing music or dancing.

Jealous of the “runner’s high” serious athletes feel after an intense, vigorous workout? Well, newly published research reveals three alternative ways you can release those mood-enhancing endorphins:

Singing, dancing, and drumming.

That’s the conclusion of a study by University of Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar. He and his colleagues report people who have just been playing music have a higher tolerance for pain—an indication their bodies are producing endorphins, which are sometimes referred to as natural opiates.

In their experiments, simply listening to music did not produce this positive effect. “We conclude that it is the active performance of music that generates the endorphin high, not the music itself,” the researchers write in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology.

Dunbar argues that music evolved, at least in part, as a way of strengthening societal bonds. As a 2010 study of preschoolers found, people who sing or move in rhythmic unison tend to work together more cooperatively afterwards. This explains the presence of music in church services and military ceremonies.

But what’s the trigger of this spirit of community? This new research suggests it may be the release of endorphins.

Dunbar and his colleagues describe four experiments. In one, they compared the pain thresholds of two groups of musicians: Twelve drummers who play together on a regular basis, and nine musicians who worked at a musical instrument store.

The percussionists played together for approximately 30 minutes; the store employees worked as salespeople for that same period of time, while “continuous, lively background music” was playing in their workplace. Within 10 minutes of finishing their respective shifts, all were subjected to pressure on their non-dominant arm, which was increased steadily until they said they were in pain.

The drummers demonstrated a significantly higher pain threshold compared to the store employees. They also reported higher levels of positive emotions.

Other experiments confirmed these findings. One looked at members of a charismatic-type religious group that participated in a service that involved “communal singing, accompanied by clapping and a great deal of upper body movement.” Their subsequent pain threshold was higher than that of a group of people participating in an Anglican prayer meeting that did not involve music.

Another compared a group of dancers with a set of musicians who participated in a practice session. The dancers had the higher pain threshold, suggesting that the stop-and-start nature of the rehearsal interrupted the flow state needed to produce the effect.

A final test compared people listening to fast and slow sets of classical music on headphones for 30 minutes. It found no increase in pain threshold for either group.

Dunbar and his colleagues argue that their results “at least provide prima facie evidence that music generates the kind of endorphin ‘highs’” that can trigger cooperation—the sort of behavior that was essential for human society to evolve.

Other explanations for the origins of music have been offered, including the notion that it grew out of either courtship rituals or the need to sooth infants.  These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive, of course.  When and why so many of us evolved into passive listeners is another question.

It would be interesting to experiment on people listening to music not through headphones, or as background sounds in a store, but rather in a concert hall, sitting in rapt concentration with hundreds of other like-minded fans. Could that sort of physically passive but focused attention on music produce the same physiological effect that the players experience? Further research awaits.

Meanwhile, if you’re congratulating a musician after a brilliant performance with a vigorous handshake, don’t worry that you’re holding on too tightly. Chances are he or she won’t mind a bit.

Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

More From Tom Jacobs

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


November 21 • 9:12 AM

‘Shirtstorm’ and Sexism in Science

Following the recent T-shirt controversy, it’s clear that sexism in science persists. But the forces driving the gender gap are still being debated.


November 21 • 8:00 AM

What Makes a Film Successful in 2014?

Domestic box office earnings are no longer a reliable metric.



November 21 • 6:00 AM

What Makes a City Unhappy?

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, Dana McMahan splits time between two of the country’s unhappiest cities. She set out to explore the causes of the happiness deficits.


November 21 • 5:04 AM

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends’ perceptions suggest they know something’s off with their pals but like them just the same.


November 21 • 4:00 AM

In 2001 Study, Black Celebrities Judged Harshly in Rape Cases

When accused of rape, black celebrities were viewed more negatively than non-celebrities. The opposite was true of whites.


November 20 • 4:00 PM

Women, Kink, and Sex Addiction: It’s Not Like the Movies

The popular view is that if a woman is into BDSM she’s probably a sex addict, and vice versa. In fact, most kinky women are perfectly happy—and possibly healthier than their vanilla counterparts.


November 20 • 2:00 PM

A Majority of Middle-Class Black Children Will Be Poorer as Adults

The disturbing findings of a new study.


November 20 • 12:00 PM

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.


November 20 • 10:00 AM

For Juvenile Records, It’s ‘Justice by Geography’

A new study finds an inconsistent patchwork of policies across states for how juvenile records are sealed and expunged.


Follow us


Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

Ethnic Diversity Deflates Market Bubbles

But it's not in the rainbow and sing-along way you'd hope for. We just don't trust outsiders' judgments.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.