Music can soothe us, revitalise us and stir up all colours of emotions. Psychology professor Dr Nikki Rickard explains some of the ways music impacts our mood – and how we can use it to feel better.

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Illustrations: James Lake

Why does music produce such a strong emotional response in us?

Music can be complex – so its effect on us can also be complex. One of the most powerful ways music produces an emotional response is to pull up memories that have become associated with it. Music we listened to in our youth is the soundtrack for a lot of important and emotional events – first love, losses, changes in self-identity and social identity. This music is bound to memories of those events in a ‘music-emotion-memory’ brain hub, so that the emotions and memories are also triggered whenever we hear those songs again.

Music can also be emotionally powerful because it is physiologically activating. Some of our very basic survival systems in the brain and body can be alerted by music. In this way, any emotions we’re feeling in response to the music can become strengthened.

Another way music can produce strong emotions is via empathy. We can hear a mournful cello, a foreboding bass, a slow, fearful rhythm, or a crying voice singing the blues – and we share the emotion being expressed. The parts of the brain activated when we personally feel those emotions can also be activated by watching or listening to others experiencing those emotions – so we ‘feel’ the emotions the musician or composer is trying to express in the music.

How can music make us feel happier and more energised? What are the characteristics of tracks that give us this feeling?

Some of the key characteristics of uplifting music are a faster tempo, major keys, bright timbres, consonant harmonies and regular rhythms (Vivaldi’s Spring is a good example). This type of music is more likely to make people happier than slower, minor key, irregular melodies (Albinoni’s Adagio in G minor is a classic example of a piece that is more likely to make us sad). Any music that mimics events in our world that alert us – like fast or loud sounds, or unexpected events – will physiologically arouse us, and have the potential to energise us.

But this will differ across individuals. Our associations with a piece of music, current mood, personality or personal preferences can trump the structure or style of the music. So while the bright, upbeat style of march music should be happy, my preferences mean it’s likely to annoy me. Slow bluesy songs about angst can make me smile because they are so beautiful.

Studies have shown that music can also activate the same reward systems in our brain as do other reinforcing stimuli, like food, sex and drugs. The happy chemical dopamine is released and we feel pleasure as a result.

The key predictor of whether music will trigger this pleasure system is not to do with the actual type of music, but rather whether an individual personally likes it or not. Familiarity with a piece of music can also increase the chances we will like it, as does the right level of complexity (too difficult and we don’t understand it, too simple and it’s boring).  For each individual, the level of music knowledge and exposure we’ve had in across our lives will determine which type of music is likely to be most pleasurable for us.

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Why is it sometimes pleasurable to listen to sad music? If you’re feeling down, is seeking comfort in sad music a good idea, or is it more likely to make you feel worse?

People often use music to regulate their emotions – we listen to upbeat music when we want to feel happier or get energised, but we can also seek out music to manage negative feelings, like anger and sadness.

Most of the time, music can be very effective for coping with negative feelings – for instance, in helping to release pent up tension, to help us see that others have felt the same way as we do and understand our own emotions better, and even as a ‘friend’ who is connecting with and empathising with our own emotions.

Music can often help us see that ‘negative’ emotions can be very positive – insights and learnings can come from how sadness helps us see the world a bit differently. Some people find answers to their problems in the songwriter’s own journey through similar situations. So we often choose music of a similar emotional colour to how we’re feeling, and this often helps us to cope with those difficult emotions.

However, if we’re experiencing ongoing sadness or clinical depression, listening to sad music can exacerbate those feelings. Studies (e.g. by Sandra Garrido) have shown that sometimes listening to a lot of sad music when depressed can encourage rumination, and prevent individuals from more adaptive means of coping. Sad music can then be unhelpful, keeping the listener ‘stuck in the rut’, deepening their own feelings and encouraging further spiralling down the negative cycle of thinking.

At these times, despite the music perhaps not resonating so well with how we’re feeling, it may be healthier to listen to happier music, which has been shown to improve mood.

How can music help to calm you down?

Music has been shown to be capable of reducing anxiety and tension. Music which has a slow tempo, warm timbres (e.g. strings) and legato (smoothly connected) notes is generally soothing Satie’s Gymnopedie No 1 is a nice example.

Again, music is hijacking systems in our brain that support our survival. It’s the same way we respond to waves lapping on the shore, or gentle breezes – events in the world that are slow, smooth, repetitive and unlikely to pose a threat. Our brain and body respond to these cues and relax.

In one of our studies, we showed that even during significantly stressful events – such as preparing for a public speaking task – having calming music in the background prevented the classic stress responses, like increased heart rate and blood pressure, as well as improving how people subjectively felt.

With technology allowing us to carry our whole music library with us wherever we go, how can we use music to influence our moods throughout the day?

Most of us don’t leave home without a smartphone, so we have such easy and broad access to music like never before. This offers a great opportunity to add music to our toolbag of coping strategies to manage our everyday ups and downs of emotions.

One thing we can do is become more aware and mindful of how our emotions do fluctuate across the day, so we notice when we might need some support. For example, do you hit a patch in the afternoon when you get bored and feel a bit flat? Does the drive home in city traffic and blocked highways increase tension so when you get home, you snap at the slightest challenge?

Smartphone apps can help support you to manage your moods. Apps like MoodPrism and Pacifica include mood tracking which help you monitor your mood over time, and give you feedback on when and why your emotions vary. These apps can be used to measure whether the current strategies you use for stress (whether they involve music or not) actually make you feel better.

Mood management apps like MoodMission include music among the range of strategies suggested to manage moods. And music-specific apps (like MuPsych, SoundR and eScape) help you see how your own music selections impact on your mood, and how they might be used to shift moods to where you want to be.

Obviously a lot of people routinely use music to energise and synchronise their activity during exercise.  Music can also be used to manage moods, but it helps to do this mindfully.  So next time you select your playlist, see how it makes you feel. Use a mood tracking app if that helps, but be mindful of how you use music, as it’s a powerful tool.