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Emotion Regulation

If Music Lifts You Up, Even Rotten Eggs Can’t Bring You Down

Uplifting music boosts positivity and makes negative stimuli less of a downer.

Key points

  • Hearing self-selected music from a playlist of songs you love is a reliable way to reduce mental fatigue and improve your mood.
  • A first-of-its-kind new study found that regular music listening minimizes the impact of negative stimuli, such as unpleasant odors.
  • Beyond olfaction, this research suggests that frequent music listening may enhance emotional regulatory abilities in day-to-day life.
Irina Levitskaya/Shutterstock
Source: Irina Levitskaya/Shutterstock

"Hark now, hear the sailors cry. Smell the sea and feel the sky. Let your soul and spirit fly." —Van Morrison, "Into the Mystic" (1970)

During my childhood in the early '70s, the smells of summer and the sounds of that era's popular music melded to create a myriad of happy memories that never fail to buoy my spirits any time I reminisce.

For me, nostalgic summertime music has the power to make everything smell good. Even the foul odor of low tide, charcoal lighter fluid, or bug spray are scents that trigger blissful flashbacks. These olfactory cues are associated with having fun at Summer Solstice bonfires or July Fourth barbecues, where the musical soundtrack on the boombox always included Bruce Springsteen songs like "Rosalita" or "Sandy" from 1973's The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle and Van Morrison tunes like "And It Stoned Me" or "Into the Mystic" from Moondance.

In the summer of 1983, I discovered that listening to mixtapes on my Walkman while wearing animalic powerhouse colognes (which some describe as smelling like "hot, dirty sex" or "B.O.") layered with a spritz of chemically Coppertone sunscreen was a way to regulate my emotions during grueling workouts.

When I first started going to the gym in the early '80s, songs like "Physical" by Olivia Newton-John and "Flashdance (What a Feeling)" by Irene Cara helped me romanticize any pungent locker-room stench. There's something about catching a whiff of stale sweat while hearing "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor that gives me a rush and makes me feel 17 again.

"Don't Bring Me Down": Music Is an Effective Emotion Regulation Tool

When it comes to the power of uplifting songs to make stinky smells seem less noxious, the anecdotal observations from my youth were recently corroborated by some evidence-based research.

A new study reports that having a positive auditory experience while listening to music can influence impressions of negative olfactory stimuli (i.e., unpleasant odors) by improving emotion regulation. These findings (Berthold-Losleben et al., 2021) were published on April 21 in the open-access journal BMC Neuroscience.

The researchers found that listening to upbeat classical music counteracts negative emotional states elicited by unpleasant, effluvious odors and appears to boost resilience.

In their paper's abstract, the authors note that "improving implicit emotional regulation could reduce psychological burden and therefore be clinically relevant for treating psychiatric disorders with strong affective symptomatology." According to the authors, these findings "offer a first base for future studies on implicit emotion regulation in clinical populations."

To investigate the effects of listening to music on implicit emotion regulation, this international team of researchers led by Nils Kohn of the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition, and Behaviour at Radboud University in the Netherlands designed a unique experiment in which they paired negative olfactory experiences—induced by sniffing an odor similar to rotten eggs—with hearing positive music. There was also a control group used to measure olfactory-induced emotional responses to an unpleasant odor in people who didn't listen to music.

"In the task, subjects had to always rate how disgusting the smell was, how they liked the music, and how they felt in general. This was done while the subjects lay in the fMRI scanner," Kohn said in a June 29 Medical Xpress feature story.

Notably, the researchers found that having study participants listen to music that has previously been shown to induce positive emotional states twice a day (morning/evening) for about 15 minutes as part of a three-week "music training" intervention reduced the intensity of negative emotions associated with smelling a rotten-egg-like odor in comparison to the control group.

30 Minutes of Music Listening Per Day May Increase Emotional Regulatory Abilities

These latest (2021) findings on how music affects implicit emotion regulation suggest that musical interventions have the potential to boost stress resilience and help those with affective disorders.

"Only participants who received music training showed lower negative affective state when negative odors were paired with positive music," the authors explain in their paper's Discussion section. "Such [an] effect suggests that regular listening to music might increase implicit emotional regulatory abilities when unpleasant emotional conflictual contests occur."

"Patients suffering from affective disorders like depression often find themselves in an endless circle of sameness," first author Mark Berthold-Losleben from the Department of Mental Health at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) told Medical Xpress.

"Once confronted with triggers that lead to negative affect, they react with negative emotions or feelings, negative body experiences, and negative thinking," he added. "All of that itself can trigger a new negative affect. These patients tend to end up in a negative circle or spiral which it is difficult or impossible to get out of."

"We are now trying to initiate a collaboration between Radboud University Nijmegen and NTNU in Trondheim to continue this line of research, as I'm still very interested in what challenges our abilities to regulate ourselves in our daily life and what can support us," Kohn concluded. "Music would truly be such an easy, powerful and supportive tool for emotion regulation."


M. Berthold-Losleben, S. Papalini, U. Habel, K. Losleben, F. Schneider, K. Amunts & N. Kohn. "A Short-Term Musical Training Affects Implicit Emotion Regulation Only in Behaviour but Not in Brain Activity." BMC Neuroscience (First published: April 26, 2021) DOI: 10.1186/s12868-021-00636-1

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