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Music’s Power Explained

How you listen may determine your mental health.

Sovereign Health/Shutterstock
Source: Sovereign Health/Shutterstock

Music can be a powerful emotional tool. The sweet, somber sounds of Adele’s “Someone Like You” can bring chills—or even tears—to listeners. In the 18th century, the emotional allure of music was no different: The quiet, reverberating notes in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 can still evoke loneliness and despair. There are few things more satisfying than yell-singing along to Nirvana when you’re angry, or skipping around the house to a Taylor Swift song after a particularly good day. I have used pleasant sounds of nature—such as rain, waves on the shore, meadows or woods with birds, or music the patient finds soothing—instead of eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) successfully in patients with PTSD.

As it turns out, the emotions evoked by music don’t just feel good—they’re healthy for you, too. A meta-analysis of 400 music studies found that listening to music has the ability to reduce anxiety, fight depression and boost the immune system. Clinical music therapists have even started popping up, prescribing music for everything from Alzheimer’s to autism spectrum disorder (in addition to other treatments, of course).

But can the emotions associated with music ever be harmful?

When music negatively impacts mental health

A research team at the Center for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyväskylä, the University of Helsinki and Aalto University in Finland recently published a study in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. The team, led by doctoral student Emily Carlson, wanted to examine whether modulating emotions via music could potentially harm a person’s mental health.

The answer? Yes. Sometimes.

In the study, researchers performed psychological testing on a total of 123 patients between the ages of 18 and 55, approximately half of which were women. Participants were asked a series of questions about their mental health. Scientists then used their answers to evaluate each participant’s level of depression, anxiety, and neuroticism.

Participants were also evaluated on something known as the Music in Mood Regulation scale, or MMR. According to the MMR, the way individuals regulate their mood with music can be divided into seven categories: Entertainment, Revival, Strong Sensation, Mental Work, Solace, Diversion, and Discharge. The latter three categories (Solace, Diversion, and Discharge) are all ways in which individuals can use music to regulate negative emotions.

With Solace, people listen to music that matches their emotional state, e.g., sad music if they are sad. Individuals who listen to music for solace use that music to feel understood and less alone. For instance, a person with depression might listen to a song about living with the illness and find comfort in it.

With Diversion, people listen to music to distract themselves from their bad mood. This music does not need to match their mental state. For instance, a person who is anxious might sing along to a happy song until the anxiety dissipates.

With Discharge, people listen to music that matches their emotional state to better express that emotion. For instance, a person who is frustrated might sing along to angry music to provide an outlet for that frustration.

According to the study, men (but not women) who used the Discharge method of listening to music had greater levels of anxiety and neuroticism than the other participants. In other words, venting negative emotions through music doesn’t help alleviate those negative emotions—in fact, it may even make them worse.

How music listening styles impact the brain

The researchers in this study didn’t just look at each participant’s mental health and music habits—they also looked at each participant’s neurological response to music. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), a brain imaging technique that uses blood flow to determine which areas of the brain are active. During the brain scan, the participants listened to clips of happy, sad and fearful-sounding music.

Men who preferred to vent their negative emotions through negative music (i.e., the Discharge method) had significantly less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) than the other participant groups. In contrast, women who used music to distract themselves from negative moods (i.e., the Diversion method) had increased activity in the mPFC.

What’s so important about the mPFC?

“The mPFC is active during emotion regulation,” explained the senior author of the study, Elvira Brattico. “These results show a link between music listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain.”

What does all of this mean?

When you’re fighting a bad mood, why is it sometimes healthy to listen to music and sometimes unhealthy?

Music is a coping mechanism, and—unfortunately—not all coping mechanisms are good. For instance, using venting and rumination as coping mechanisms relate positively to depression and other mood disorders. Using distraction and positive reappraisal (or “looking on the bright side”), meanwhile, is negatively correlated with depression.

So the next time you have a bad day and curl up in bed with the soft sounds of Mozart (or Taylor Swift), think to yourself—why am I listening to this music? When I’m done listening to it, will I feel better? Or worse?

Contributed by Courtney Lopresti, M.S.

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