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Migraine Versus Music

Migraine Versus Music

It is widely accepted in the scientific community that music has incredible therapeutic applications to improve people’s overall health, but most of us don’t need to read a study or visit a music therapist to understand the potential benefits of a musical life. While tapping our feet to pop tunes at the grocery store, or grimacing at the tragic choice of radio station at the dentist’s office, it’s pretty obvious that music can have a real effect on our mood and wellbeing. Most of us have music in our personal collection that can take us back in time, make us feel less alone, or even bring on some cathartic waterworks.

I have always been a firm believer in the power of music. For most of my life, I have immersed myself in it for hours every day. Nothing was more fun in daycare as when we stood in a circle and made a racket with movement and singing. As student in elementary school, choral singing helped to give me a sense of belonging, community, purpose, worth, and even a better understanding of local history and traditions. As a teen, music kept me sane. I had the great fortune to sing and play in multiple musical ensembles, and when I wasn’t making music, I had angsty pop music coursing through my ear buds and into my brain.

Music was my life. But when chronic migraine came to town, I had to quit choir practice (those high soprano notes, ouch!), quit teaching music (9a.m. rehearsal meant migraine by 9:15!), and most of the time even listening to music was too triggering to tolerate. Thus I was presented with one of the many paradoxes people with migraine must negotiate daily: one of the things that was good for me, that brought me joy and healing, was now a trigger for debilitating symptoms. So just as I practically gave up on exercise, certain foods, and socializing, I gave up my musical life, cold turkey.

How awful to have disabling pain exacerbated by the one thing you cherish more than any other activity in the world.

My divorce from music lasted years, and in hindsight, that was a pretty extreme move. Recently, I have come to a very important realization: if an activity or food is a migraine trigger for me, but it’s also an integral part of my happiness and identity, then it’s probably a bad idea to cut it out of my life entirely. Instead, I’ve come to understand that moderation is key, and that while exercise, music, and socializing do indeed bring on migraine attacks sometimes, I still benefit from their healing qualities enough to let them in my life now and then. This new philosophy has had broad implications: because I willingly participate in activities knowing full-well that they might result in an attack, when the migraine does happen, I’m less likely to lay on the self blame, and more likely to think, that was worth it.

I still can’t tolerate loud clangy sounds, so playing piano is still mostly off the table, but I’m trying to make music a part of every day now. Even if it’s half an hour of low, gentle, music with my ear plugs in, it feels good to return to my favorite activity, and I suspect when I play it right, the benefits outweigh the potential for pain.

This summer I might even try taking The Migraine Girl’s advice, and venture to an outdoor concert where I can sit very veeeery far away from the stage. Wish me luck 🙂


This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • BlueConna
    3 years ago

    I myself am still in my teen years. When I can I blast my classic rock all the while knowing I’m going to be sick by the 3rd or 4th song. I’ve had this curse since I was 3 yet it continues to steal the things I love away. I’ve had to limit the time I spend helping my father fix computer and I’ve lost my job working with computers since they make me sick after 2 hours of being on them. Loud music is a no no. And forget ever going to the movie theater or mall, like ever.

  • Jojiieme
    3 years ago

    Cruel, thank for comprising for some of us! Tell us which composers, or pieces we must look for, please, and Moderators, please allow this – I couldn’t recognise any piece by the technical terms, nor could anyone around me. I’d gladly purchase several CDs worth…
    I have say though, that for me even low frequencies and some low volumes can be too much.
    Sounds can cut right through me, through my torso and leg muscles as if I’m being slashed by lasers. If I’m lucky and can rest quietly and still for an hour or two, maybe later I can enjoy some quieter gentle music. But often I can’t. Even a human voice at normal talking volume feels lethal.
    Sound, light, colours, smells, perception of movement… It’s all too much…

  • seraphimgen
    3 years ago

    The two things that I enjoy most in life, music and reading are the two things that make a migraine far worse for me. How tragic for those of us who love some things so much, to have it taken away from us so rudely. I used to play in bands in my younger years, but now that seems a complete impossibility. Music is a huge part of my life, but as a concession to the migraines, I now find the style of music has changed considerably over the last few years. This may be simply part of becoming more ‘mature’, (my daughter may have other words for it), but I need to listen to much softer, more relaxing music. On no-migraine days, the field is a little wider, but as the migraine approaches, and for days after, it is to ‘lounge, relaxation or other more peaceful genres. If the migraine is particularly strong, then all music must be gone, and for me, no matter how good the sound system/stereo I may have, the music will sound like it’s coming through a particularly nasty tin can, and really exacerbates the pain considerably. I just enjoy the few good days and break out the stereo or headphones when I can.

  • Operadiva76
    3 years ago

    As a former opera singer & someone whose entire life has revolved around music, this article touched me. I literally stopped singing in 2009 due to chronic migraine! Due to the combo of the pain from the migraine attacks & the side effects from my meds, I can no longer sing like I once did. Migraine has stolen my memory, my fun times going to live shows & performing, & has quite literally stolen my voice!

  • Elliegal
    3 years ago

    Music for me isn’t so much a trigger as I just can’t stand it during the prodrome or migraine itself. At first, I didn’t realize it had anything to do with migraine. Only when I found myself not tolerating ANY of the favorites on my ipod, did I realize that it was my chronic migraine talking in harsh discord.
    So many sounds have become intolerable. Our perfectly good refrigerator made a high whining sound when it went into defrost. This bothered me so much that I had a hard time, not only being in the kitchen, but even downstairs. The refrigerator repair guy did nothing but laugh at me and take my money. Patient hubster actually let me buy a new (and blessedly quiet) refrigerator.
    I have chronic tinnitus along with migraine which makes hearing phantom sounds an every night occurrence. And, God forbid should there be any kind of high pitched whine from anything mechanical that does not harmonize with that tinnitus. Hello, ear plugs.
    But I agree with you. I refuse to let migraine totally rule my life and altogether remove many of my enjoyable reasons for living. That occasional glass of wine? Gonna do it. That Jazz concert? Gonna do it. Bright sun at the beach? Gonna do it. As long as I have my blessed rescue meds.
    Best of luck with that outdoor concert. Bring ear plugs.

  • Cruel
    3 years ago

    I am very much like you. Music does not trigger, but I can’t enjoy it or even tolerate it when during my migraine phases–and, I’m a composer! The most I can stand are drone tones. I have experimented with “migraine music” and have started to create extended (1+ hours) drones, usually consisting of a C3 or an octave lower. The drone helps me meditate and focus on something other than the pain. Higher pitched notes don’t tend to work as they begin to cause irritability and confusion within my head. Low frequency binaural beats, and recordings of Tibetan throat singing are good, too. Drone tones allow my mind to attach itself to the pitch and I can become mildly synesthetic while meditating, thus relieving some of the discomfort. I don’t know if this phenomena is the result of congenital synesthesia, or if the synesthesia is triggered by the migraine and the drone. My guess is that it is probably the combo of the two in which the migraine produces a more vivid response to the drone. I would be interested to know the percentage of synesthetes who suffer from migraines. That would be an interesting study.

  • Maddy
    3 years ago

    on the music theme, if you suffer from migraine you simply must download the song titled “Migraine” from Twenty One Pilots. it is just brilliant.

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