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The Soothing Balm of Music

How to use music to help you smile or cry

Note: This is not a political post, just one inspired by my personal reactions to recent political events.

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I finally cried over Hillary Clinton’s loss last Sunday morning when watching Kate McKinnon (as Clinton) hauntingly sing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” on SNL. Though there were likely multiple factors involved in this emotional release—fatigue from travel, disbelief over recent political events, a physical and emotional letdown following a week-long professional conference—what ultimately put me over the edge and allowed the tears to come was the music itself. The vulnerability and strength in McKinnon’s voice, the beautiful simplicity of the melody and harmonic progression, the adapted lyrics. It was the music that allowed me to feel the first pang of sadness over recent political events.

Later in the day, a music video appeared on my Facebook feed posted by a co-ed a cappella group, the Nor’easters, in which they sing as (in their words) a form of unity through the confusion following the 2016 election. This music was different than McKinnon’s “Hallelujah”—more harmonious and resonant, more about finding strength, more empowering feeling.

However, what was common in both instances was the role music played. These performers used song as a way to express a feeling and sentiment (one that may be difficult to put into words) and express it in a way that resonated with others.

These purposes of music are not unique to post-election experiences. In fact, they speak to common reasons why we listen to or make music—as a way to feel, express a feeling, and share a bond with others. This doesn’t necessarily mean we use music to make us feel happier (remember, I cried when listening to McKinnon sing, and was far from feeling happy). Though music can bring a sense of pleasure—an experience supported by neuroscience research (see Levitin, 2013 for a review)—music-induced mood regulation may also be used to help us feel sorrow or sadness. In fact, some writers argue there is a reward associated with experiencing sadness while listening to or making music. It may help us understand those feelings better, facilitate the expression of the feelings (such as when I cried), or help us communicate them (Koelsch, 2013).

In the spirit of harnessing the emotion-inducing potential of music, I offer you 9 ways for connecting to emotions within yourself through music:

  1. Listen to music that makes you cry.
  2. Hit "play" and listen to one of your standard favorite songs.
  3. Throw a dance party in your living room (even if it’s just you dancing).
  4. Go outside. Take a walk and listen to nature.
  5. Google a favorite artist or band, then play a music video of a song of theirs.
  6. Listen to an entire album from start to finish.
  7. Listen to music that makes you smile.
  8. Sit back in your chair, close your eyes, and breath in and out at a steady pace for several minutes.
  9. Take 10 minutes and play through a song from your childhood (on piano, guitar, voice...your choice).

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.


Koelsch, S. (2013). Brain and music. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Levitin, D. J. (2013). Neural correlates of musical behavior: A brief overview. Music Therapy Perspectives, 31(1), 15-24.