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Music: Opiate in A Minor

Pleasant music can soothe pain, but does annoying music do the same?

The pain-relieving power of music is well-known, but is that because it provides an emotional lift? To find out, Mathieu Roy, at the University of Montreal, investigated whether annoying music would also dull pain.

Roy had volunteers listen to either happy music, dissonant music or silence. Lucky subjects bopped to the "Cancan Cannissimo," by Pierre Porte, or the galloping "William Tell Overture." Others endured Paul Dolden's "Threshold of Deafening Silence," a track one critic compared to "one million needles being ground into a giant phonograph record."

Afterward, Roy applied heat to each volunteer's forearm, ranging from warm to painfully hot. The happy-music group felt 20 percent less pain than the others, suggesting that positive emotions are key to music's analgesic effect.

But one person's headache is another's bliss, points out a musician with the New York electro-punk band Mindless Self Indulgence. "If you tied down my fans and burned them, they'd like it," he says. "I think what is dissonant to one person is not to another. A lot of the kids who listen to our CDs are ridiculously messed up, and our music makes them feel better."

"There seems to be an automatic response to dissonant music, but it could be mediated by personal taste," responds Roy.