Music and noise-cancelling headphones

Music is one of the easiest distraction techniques to use. As far back as 1995, a dental phobia manual mentioned that

“With portable tape and CD players so inexpensive, we encourage patients to bring CDs or tapes of music, books, or comedy they find engaging. Let the patient control the volume. That way he can use it to drown out noises.” 1

Mobile phone with headphones
Nowadays we use music and podcasts on our mobile phones to achieve the same effect. And we no longer use “he” as a generic pronoun!

What headphones are best?

Of course, you can always bring your own headphones along (noise-cancelling or not), and many people do! Your dentist will be well used to it.

Some dentists also provide noise-cancelling headphones. Wireless ones are becoming very popular right now (no cables to get in the way). Examples include Bose QuietComfort 35 (ultra-comfy) and Beats by Dr. Dre Studio (less comfy but has volume control built into earpiece so you can quickly adjust the volume). When using earphones, your dentist may want to thoroughly explain what they are going to do beforehand (including info about stop and coping signals), and lift up an earpiece when they want to tell you something.

Listening to music that has been specifically composed for relaxation can also be really helpful, for example during an injection (search for free apps in the App Store or on Google Play).

For more tips on how to use headphones as a distraction device, you can visit our drill phobia page.

The argument against using headphones as a distraction technique

Some people find that using an mp3 player or similar can be an isolating experience. You are in your own world where your imagination can run wild and you can’t hear any of your dentist’s soothing words. For this reason, you may prefer it if the radio is playing in the background, or if your dentist hooks up your mp3 player or phone to a speaker system and plays your music. This way, everyone in the room can participate in it and you will feel less isolated!

As always, it boils down to personal preference – some people love to use noise-cancelling devices, some people loathe them.

From our message board:

“I was told to bring music which I didn’t think would make a big difference. It did!”

“I think the idea for using music is to distract your mind by giving you another stimulus to focus on and not so much to actually “drown out” the noises… I find that I am usually calmer when there is music on the radio at the office to distract my mind but it has more to do with attention not competition of sounds/volume.”

“I just had my first injection in over 20 years and I was in shock, I didnt even feel a poke! My secret was also I put headphones on and had my music blaring in my ear to distract me, believe me it worked…”

“I also asked if I could put my headphones in and listened to a podcast I like, boy did that help make the hour go quickly.”

The Future?

In January 2011, a team of researchers at King’s College London, led by Professor Brian Millar, announced that they have invented a prototype device that works like noise-cancelling headphones but is designed to block the high frequency noises of the handpiece. Ordinary noise-cancelling headphones are not good at blocking high frequency noises – they are better for blocking low frequencies.

The device works by simply plugging special headphones into your own mp3 player and listening to your own music while blocking out the sound of the handpiece and suction equipment (the spit hoover). This device would be quite cheap for dentists to buy, and the team was looking for investors to help commercialise the product. Unfortunately, it looks as if they didn’t manage to find any investors :-(.

The good thing about such a device would be that you would still be able to hear your dentist and other members of the dental team, but that unwanted sounds would be filtered out by the device. You wouldn’t even need to put on music for it to work. The prototype device used a microphone and a chip to analyse incoming soundwaves, and electronic filters which lock onto sound waves and remove them as the handpiece is used.

The information on this page has been provided by the Dental Fear Central Web Team. Last reviewed on September 25, 2019. We welcome your feedback on our information resources.


  1. Treating Fearful Dental Patients: A Patient Management Handbook by P. Weinstein. University of Washington, 2nd Edition (1995)