Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

Music: It's More Than "Feel Good"

The popular notion that music makes us feel better is too simplistic

Posted Dec 12, 2013

Every once in awhile a story like this emerges that sings the praises (no pun intended) of listening to music. These stories expand on the therapeutic benefits of music, mostly those related to relaxation or mood induction (i.e., making one feel happy/calm/better). Although the New Yorker piece is better than most I read—it actually acknowledges that personal musical preference makes a difference and that findings from mice studies may not translate to humans—the basic message is the same:

Music makes us feel better.

I disagree. CAN make us feel better. But it can also make us feel sad. And it can make us feel angry. And it can make us feel uncomfortable. And it can make us not feel anything at all.

See, I read these articles from the perspective of a music therapist who witnesses the incredible power music can wield on us not just emotionally, but also physiologically, cognitively, and socially. I also strive to understand how and why this effect happens. What the majority of these media pieces address is the ways in which we use music to self-regulate. Of how we incorporate music in our daily lives to dance and be joyful, cry and be sad, smile and be happy, or yell and be angry.

I recently asked some music therapy friends of mine to share the most popular holiday song they find themselves playing this time of year and why, in their professional opinion, that song is so popular. I had expected that the songs they shared would relate to the emotional, warm fuzzy side of holiday music. This is what I got instead:

The most popular holiday song I use in my practice is probably Jingle Bells. It's well-known, and both adults and children seem to enjoy singing it. It's also a very versatile song: I have clients who are working on cognitive skills play a particular rhythm (Jin-gle Bells or quarter note-quarter note-half note) on an instrument while singing the song and listening to me play a different rhythm on my guitar. And clients who are working on articulation can practice the bi-labial sound "bells". ~ Janice Linstrom, MA, MT-BC, Heartbeat Music Therapy (Dallas, Texas)

One of my favorite songs is a tune that I learned from "Wee Sing for Christmas" called "Tapping, Tapping Little Elf."  I love singing this with the children I work with!  It is perfect for working on gross motor skills, fine motor skills, imitation, following directions, and sustained attention.  It is a simple song set to the tune of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" so it is easy to learn and memorize! ~ Ryan Judd, MA, MT-BC, The Rhythm Tree (Dover, New Hampshire)

Rather than the emotion-based rationale I had expected, these clinicians shared cognitive- and motor-based rationales, with a sprinkling of personal preference, versatility, and familiarity.

What this highlights to me is the diverse ways in which music can influence us. This is in line with the research and theories exploring the functions and uses of music. For example, Merriam outlined ten functions of music in his 1964 book The Anthropology of Music:

  1. music for emotional expression
  2. music for communication
  3. music as symbolic representation
  4. music as a way to enforce comformity to social norms
  5. music for the validation of social institutions and religious rituals
  6. music that contributes to the continuity and stability of culture
  7. music that contributes to the integration of society
  8. music for aesthetic enjoyment
  9. music for entertainment
  10. music to elicit a physical response, intentionally or not

More recently, Sloboda and colleagues identified four primary reasons why we choose to listen to music when we do: (1) for distraction (e.g. from pain or boredom); (2) to energize us (e.g. when maintaining attention to a task); (3) for entrainment (e.g. when exercising); or (4) for meaning enhancement (e.g. with mood induction) (Sloboda, 2010).

However, what the research indicates and what the professional board certified music therapists share does not necessarily fit with what I commonly hear and read about—the simplified notion that music makes us feel better. The challenge to you then, reader, is to think outside the box when considering how music fits in your life. Although your original reaction may be to acknowledge music's relaxing or "therapeutic" benefits in your life, what are the OTHER functions and roles it serves for you?

Does music do more than just make you feel better?

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.


Merriam, A. P. (1964). The anthropology of music. Chicago: Northwestern University Press.

Sloboda, J. A. (2010). Music in everyday life: The role of emotions In P.N. Juslin and J.A. Sloboda's Handbook of music and emotion: Theory, research, applications (pg. 493-514). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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