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7 Effective Ways to Regulate Emotion With Music

How is music used for emotion regulation?

Brooke Cagle brookecagle [CC0]
Source: Brooke Cagle brookecagle [CC0]

Emotion regulation is the ability to manage and respond to an emotional experience effectively. It typically involves a choice of emotions, when to have them, and how to express them (Gross, 2014).

For example, if the regulation goal is to reduce a negative emotion, one can choose a distraction to stay calm. Emotion-regulation abilities are regarded as crucial for a healthy psychological life.

People use music to improve their mood on a daily basis. Listeners deliberately use music to enhance positive emotions and reduce negative emotions, or to regulate levels of arousal. For example, calming music can reduce physiological symptoms of anxiety, thereby activating a relaxation response.

The following seven strategies are quite helpful for people during the most difficult moods (Sakka & Juslin, 2018).

1. Musical pleasure: Music has a strong connection to feelings of pleasure. Engaging with music can trigger the same biological and psychological responses associated with other highly fundamental rewards, such as food, sex, and money (Salimpoor et al., 2015).

Music can excite us and calm us, and connect us to our feelings and to the feelings of others. Indeed, musical training can help us to recognize our own and others' emotions (Sachs et al., 2018).

2. Music as a catharsis: Music helps to channel one’s frustration or purge (catharsis) negative emotions (anger and sadness) in a harmless way. For example, when we listen to sad music (or watch a sad film), we are disconnected from any real threat or danger that the music (or movie) represents. When we cry at the beauty of sad music, we experience a profound aspect of our emotional selves (Kawakami, et al., 2013).

3. Music and rhythmic movement: Our internal rhythms (e.g., heart rate) speed up or slow down to become one with the music (Levitin, et al. 2018). The movement (e.g., head nodding, foot/hand tapping) is more likely to occur when one is listening to a highly enjoyable song.

For instance, dancing is typical behavior to move overtly or covertly in coordination with the music. The emotion of the music is reflected in the body and the faces of the listeners. Being in sync with music is a source of pleasure. Moving in sync with other people is a valuable tool that can create a strong bond between people.

Additionally, many people enjoy listening to music as a motivator when working out. Music makes exercise seem less strenuous.

4. Evaluative conditioning: Evaluative conditioning involves a transfer of the feelings associated with past events to the music (Juslin, 2019). For example, some people may have a fond memory associated with Pachelbel’s “Canon in D Major,” for a wedding. And when the music is heard, they are automatically reminded with the same memory and the attached feelings.

5. Emotional contagion: In the same way that we grasp other people’s emotions, we also feel the emotions from music, because they’re contagious (Davies, 2011). Sad music tends to make people sad; happy music cheers them. That is, listeners tend to adopt bodily postures and attitudes like those expressed in the music.

For example, when people attend concerts, their emotions are in part influenced by the emotions of other people present. Similarly, background music might affect our moods (give us energy or put us to sleep) by way of contagion.

6. Music and visual mental imagery: Music can be quite effective in stimulating visual imagery in listeners (e.g., a beautiful landscape and color) (Taruffi and Küssner, 2019).

Listeners use visual mental imagery to calm or relax. The content of visual mental images is highly sensitive to the emotional tone of the music. For example, happy-evoking music is linked to dancing imagery and sad music to self-reflection.

7. Lyrics: Lyrics that resonate with the listener’s personal experience can give voice to feelings or experiences that one might not be able to express oneself.

Music is not a magic pill that can immediately resolve a negative mood. For instance, the depressive mood is often closely related to thought patterns. The benefits of listening to distracting music can be temporary. Thus, listening to music that alters mood via shifting thought patterns may have a long-lasting effect (Juslin, 2019).


Davies S. (2011). "Infectious Music: Music-Listener Emotional Contagion." In Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Ed. Amy Coplan and Peter Goldie. 134-48. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gross JJ, ed. (2014), Handbook of Emotion Regulation. New York: Guilford. 2nd ed.

Juslin PN (2019), Musical Emotions Explained, Oxford University Press.

Kawakami, A., Furukawa, K., Katahira, K., and Okanoya, K. (2013). Sad music induces pleasant emotion. Front. Psychol. 4:311.

Levitin, DJ Jessica A. Grahn, and Justin London (2018) The Psychology of Music: Rhythm and Movement, Annu. Rev. Psychol. 69:51–75

Sachs M, Habibi A, Damasio H (2018), Reflections on music, affect, and sociality, Prog Brain Res; 237:153-172.

Sakka, LS and Juslin PN (2018), Emotion regulation with music in depressed and non-depressed individuals: Goals, strategies, and mechanisms, Music &Science, Vol:1-12.

Salimpoor, V. N., Zald, D. H., Zatorre, R. J., Dagher, A., and McIntosh, A. R. (2015). Predictions and the brain: how musical sounds become rewarding. Trends Cogn. Sci. 19, 86–91.

Taruffi, L., & Küssner, M. B. (2019). A Review of Music-Evoked Visual Mental Imagery: Conceptual Issues, Relation to Emotion, and Functional Outcome.Psychomusicology: Music, Mind, and Brain.

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