"I put my hands up they’re playing my song the butterflies fly away"
Party In The USA by Miley Cyrus (click here for the song)
As I was helping a client prepare for a stressful meeting, we began to discuss his preferred strategy for regulating his emotions. “It’s easy” he said “I have a Spotify playlist, that gets me in the right frame of mind”.
Regular readers would know that psychologists like to study most phenomena and thus won’t be surprised to read that the literature indicates these are the main reason why people listen to music:
To manage our mood
Create background noise
Reflect on the past
To be social
To sing or dance
In my opinion, nothing on this list is particularly surprising, in a recent study as 90% of people reported listening to music for its emotional content, and tended to select music that reflected their current emotional state, even when that mood is negative.
Can music really improve my mood?
Researchers found that when we are in a positive mood we seek out activities and behaviours to maintain that state. The more aware a person is of how they are feeling, and want to feel, the better equipped they are at choosing a musical style to shift their mood. Interestingly, people use music to heighten positive emotion, and experience the depth of negative emotions. As different musical styles contain the potential for many emotional responses, music can have simultaneous effects on emotion, enhancing one while reducing another.
Is it helpful to listen to sad songs when you are feeling sad?
“They reach into your room, oh oh oh Just feel their gentle touch (gentle touch) When all hope is gone Sad songs say so much”
Sad songs by Elton John (click here for the song)
Interestingly, the research indicates that by using music to express emotions outwardly, to reflect and focus on them, and can enhance one’s capacity to think about how they are feeling and why. Thus the right song can enable a person to express and discharge negative emotions. Whilst all music will have some kind of effect on emotions, the strength of this effect depends on to what degree a person cognitively engages with the music and his or her emotions.
Does the rhythm matter?
“The beat is gonna getcha, beat is gonna getcha. Music for the blues, for your dancin' shoes,”
Can't Stop The Music by Village People (click here for the song)
A slow, quiet classical piece, or a song with a gentle tempo may trigger the autonomic nervous system to slow down our heart rate and relax our muscles, leading to a calm, relaxed state.
In contrast, a loud, driving rock and roll song may raise heart rate and energy level by signalling a less calming reaction in the autonomic nervous system. Because the nervous system travels down the spine from the cerebellum, which is responsible for motor movements and coordination, the rock song may also trigger semi-conscious rhythmic tapping or other movements in the body. This can also cause the urge to dance, or exercise with greater intensity.
Do I need to know the song?
Interestingly, researchers have found that a familiar piece of music with an emotional response is more effective at inducing a relaxed, positive mood, reducing acute and chronic pain, and reflecting more complex emotions, than unfamiliar music or environmental sounds.
He says, "son, can you play me a memory? I'm not really sure how it goes But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete When I wore a younger man's clothes"
Piano Man by Billy Joel (click here for the song)
Intuitively we know this as we choose songs not only for the emotional effect of the song itself, but also for the emotions associated with the memory it triggers. To paraphrase the email from a reader in response to my blog about taking a break (click here for the blog). “I’m not to young for your song references this week , listening to ‘Road to nowhere ‘ brought back fond memories of long car trips to remote camping spots and relaxing holidays”
This sounds like a lot of hard work?
"Sing, sing a song Make it simple to last Your whole life long"
Sing by Carpenters (click here for the song)
What is most fabulous about music is that simply having music on in the background helps pass the time, decreases loneliness. While music is not as impactful when it is a passive experience, be aware that it can still have an unconscious beneficial physiological response.
What are the social benefits?
Music is a powerful tool for social cohesion, enabling different people fit together, and feel a sense of belonging.
“I love rock n' roll So put another dime in the jukebox, baby I love rock n' roll So come and take your time and dance with”
I Love Rock 'n' Roll by Joan Jett & the Blackhearts (click here for the song)
Of course, 2020 was not the year for dance parties, or choirs or concerts and never the less there are some creative ways to connect people through music. At the start of the lockdown in Europe earlier this year videos went viral on social media of neighbours singing with each other across their balconies and even online. Musicians are getting creative, one band put out a music video with a green-screen background on which fans were supposed to doodle, another released unfinished lines of a song and invited the audience to contribute. It is safe to assume that anyone in contact with a teenager has participated in a at least one tik tok dance video. On a corporate level the possibilities are endless: there are groups with their own Spotify playlists; and teams that play the “song of the week” at the beginning their meetings.
As I wrote last week, whilst silver bullets do not exist, many people rely on music to manage strong emotions so as to avoid the experience of being overwhelmed.
Although total avoidance of emotions is an ineffective as a regulatory strategy, the use of music to divert attention away from a particularly uncomfortable emotion may be somewhat beneficial. Firstly, if you use music to avoid or distract yourself from an intense emotional state, it means you are aware of what emotions you are avoiding and what emotions you are attempting to embrace. Secondly, unlike other avoidance techniques, music carries few direct risks. Please be mindful that the regular experience of strong emotions, may require the expertise of a clinical psychologist, if in doubt please be in touch or visit your GP.
Where does fun fit in?
Please do not let all this serious research, (and song quotes) distract from the spontaneous joy that emerges when you serendipitously hear a song that brings a smile to your face and causes you to sing or dance.
Thank you for the music, the songs I'm singing Thanks for all the joy they're bringing Who can live without it, I ask in all honesty What would life be?
Thank You For The Music, ABBA (click here for the song)
Lombardi, Nicholas. (2016) The Relationship between Music Listening Habits and Global Emotion Regulation University of Hartford, ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.
Lonsdale, A.J. and North, A.C. (2011). Why do we listen to music? A uses and gratifications analysis. British Journal of Psychology, 102(1), pp.108–134.
Rickard, N.S. (2014). Editorial for “Music and Well-Being” special issue of PWB. Psychology of Well-Being, 4(1).
People Are Remembering What Music Is Really For. (2020). The Atlantic. [online] 17 Apr. Available at: https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/04/coronavirus-has-forced-repurposing-music/609601/.
Lockdown singing: the science of why music helps us connect in isolation. (2020). The Conversation. [online] 1 May. Available at: https://theconversation.com/lockdown-singing-the-science-of-why-music-helps-us-connect-in-isolation-137312.
All song lyrics are courtesy of google