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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

When Seasons Change, So Do Musical Preferences, Says Science

With daylight saving time approaching, you may be drawn to different music.

For many, music is as essential to the human experience as eating and breathing. Its pervasiveness in daily life is difficult to overstate. We hear music everywhere: at home, the gym, parties, and stores, serving as a soundtrack to our lives.

But what kind of music do we prefer to listen to, when, and why do our music preferences change?

The relationship between the change of seasons and musical preferences was the focus of a study led by psychologist Terry Pettijohn. He and his team contend that one reason we change our playlists may be due to the change of seasons including the impact of daylight saving time.

The investigators based their research on a previous study that examined the relationship between popular music preferences and the Environmental Security Hypothesis, a theory which maintains that people prefer content that is more mature and meaningful when facing threats in the environment.

The results revealed that over time, when social and economic conditions were more threatening (entailing high unemployment rate, low birth rate, high murder rate, low disposable personal income, etc.), Billboard number one songs of the year that were slower, longer, more comforting, more romantic, and conveyed greater meaning were most popular.

The thinking goes that these unhurried, pensive, and more soothing songs were favored during difficult times because they resonated with listeners’ inner experience and ultimately helped them cope better with their challenges. The converse also held true. People preferred fast, less comforting, and less serious music during periods in which economic and social conditions were generally stable and free of threats, reflecting the upbeat spirit of the times.

Building on these findings, Pettijohn and his collaborators wondered if the Environmental Security Hypothesis could also be applied to the change of seasons and in turn explain why musical preferences change with the time of the year. Technically speaking, seasons mark changes in the calendar year based on weather patterns and daylight hours. In the United States, June, July, and August (i.e., summer) are the hottest months with the most daylight hours. By contrast, November, December, and January (i.e., winter) are the coldest months, with the least daylight hours.

The change of seasons, the investigators argue, give rise to different physical and psychological tasks, emotions, and challenges. We see this all around us. Animals hibernate and migrate as winter approaches, while plants and vegetation flourish in the spring and summer and fade in the fall and winter.

And for college students, the participants in this study, fall ushers in the start of the academic school year. Gone are the carefree days of summer when school is out. With daylight saving clocks “fall back,” stealing an hour of daylight, which can feel like losing precious time. With winter comes colder temperatures, shorter days, and, in many places in the country, snow.

Pettijohn and his collaborators also argue that seasonal changes may lead to emotional changes, including depression or seasonal affective disorder. It is generally accepted that seasonal affective disorder is largely due to decreased light. Moreover, the harshness of winter can sometimes isolate individuals. In other words, and in keeping with the Environmental Security Hypothesis, conditions in fall and winter become more threatening. Spring, however, is a different story. It represents a fresh start, and when clocks “spring forward” we gain an extra hour of daylight. It is also when the national tradition of “spring break” occurs when droves of college students descend on beaches and party to their heart’s content. And as students wade into summer, they soak in the sunshine and social activity and enjoy a break from school.

But do changing seasonal conditions influence musical preferences?

In order to investigate this question, investigators designed two studies to test their hypotheses in different geographic regions, priming participants to think about different seasonal conditions. In Study 1, college students from the Northeastern United States reported their musical preferences after reading a winter or a summer seasonal condition scenario. Study 2 essentially replicated and extended Study 1, but used a sample of college students from the Southeastern United States. Here, the investigators assigned the participants to one of four conditions—fall, winter, spring, and summer—and had them describe their typical day during each of the four seasons. The investigators wanted not only to make the seasonal prime more personal for the participants but also extend the generalizability of the findings. In addition, they wanted to explore whether musical preferences would change in a region of the country where the seasons are not as pronounced as they are in the Northeast. Moreover, in the Southeastern United States university classes wind down in April and students are on “summer break” during the spring months of May and June, before the official start of summer. Thus, spring and summer may be lumped together for students in this part of the country.

In both studies, after the seasonal prime, the participants were then asked to choose one of four musical preferences that they would most like to listen to if the scenario depicted was actually happening to them in real life, as classified by the Short Test of Music Preference (STOMP):

  • Reflexive and complex (classical, blues, folk, and jazz)
  • Intense and rebellious (alternative, rock, and heavy metal)
  • Upbeat and conventional (country, religious, pop, and soundtracks/theme songs)
  • Energetic and rhythmic (dance/electronica, rap/hip-hop, and soul/funk).

What did the investigators find? Both sets of college students favored blues, jazz, classical, and folk music (i.e., reflexive and complex) during the fall and winter months, and rap/hip-hop, soul/funk, and electronica/dance music (i.e., energetic and rhythmic) during the summer months. The fondness for more complex and serious music during the harsher and more threatening seasons of fall and winter, and more lively, active energetic and rhythmic music during the less burdensome spring and summer seasons, that are rife with social activity, remains consistent with both prior research and the Environmental Security Hypothesis.

Pettijohn and his colleagues contend that these studies have practical implications. For example, they may help to predict when consumers are most likely to purchase music of certain genres, or the most advantageous time for an artist and/or their record companies to promote certain types of music. More specifically, ballads may do well in the fall and winter, and dance music may enjoy greater success in the spring and summer. Similarly, marketers could see greater benefits by promoting their products using different genres of music depending on the season, for example associating the fun features of their product with high energy music in the summer.

The investigators also argue that music consumption could be combined with cognitive behavioral therapy to fend off the symptoms of Seasonal Affective Disorder. People are wont to listen to reflective and complex music in the fall and winter, yet such introspective content may reinforce the isolation and depression that accompanies this condition. But listening to upbeat and high-energy music may help reduce some of these negative effects, and improve mood according to the authors.

In their famous song "Turn, Turn, Turn," the Byrds sang that “To everything, there is a season.” They couldn’t have anticipated it, but results of this study lend strong support for this sentiment.

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