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What you love plays a big role in how music makes you feel
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by Kitson Jazynka
Updated Sep 28, 2022
Have you ever turned on relaxing music hoping it would calm you down? Or put on party music to set an upbeat tone? Music is a powerful way to convey emotions. Some experts believe that music predates human speech and might have been a language that our primitive relatives used to communicate feelings.
Music allows you to feel the emotion of another person without the need for words, explains neuroscientist Charles Limb of the University of California, San Francisco. He says this is why music can influence your mood. But the latest songs preselected by recording companies and labeled with words like “party,” “relax” or “get happy” may not help as much as you’d think. In fact, research shows that your favorite genres and songs will improve your mood more efficiently and effectively than turning on “mood” music selected by someone else.
“There’s no such thing as relaxation music or music to get pumped up,” says Edward Roth, a professor of music therapy in the School of Music at Western Michigan University. “It just doesn’t work that way.” That’s because tunes that you find relaxing might be really aggravating to another person.
According to Roth, studies of music psychology have consistently shown that music preference plays the greatest role when it comes to music and mood.
For instance, to calm down when you’re stressed out, Roth recommends listening to songs that match your current brain state. If you’re feeling depressed, he says, “how well does it work when someone tells you to cheer up? It’s laughable. It’s the same thing we’ve seen demonstrated many times when someone’s in a depressed mood state and someone suggests turning on happy music. It often doesn’t work, and it makes them feel worse.”
Roth said your response is related to your brain’s emotional response to the music. A June 2016 study from Durham University in the United Kingdom and the University of Jyväskylä in Finland found that sad music can be comforting.
Osbourne to Coltrane
Finding the right music to change a given mood is up to the individual. One person might may be better off listening to heavy metal, but another person may benefit from jazz, classic rock or fast-tempo swing music. Limb says the brain synchronizes to the auditory rhythms of music. Slower melodies can help you slow things down—or speed things up. “It’s no coincidence that people use music for all manner of behavioral tasks with very specific goals in mind,” he observes. The trick is to pick the kind of music you like.
Music can affect your brain in other ways, too. For instance, a February 2008 study authored by Limb and published in PLoS ONE showed that improvisational music can enhance your creativity. An Italian study found that listening to a Mozart piano sonata created a cognitive increase that activated memory and problem-solving abilities. And another study, published in November 2013 by Frontiers in Psychology, showed that older people who learned to play the piano over four months benefited from elevated moods and an improved sense of well-being.
As for using music to improve your mood, Roth recommends that you create your own playlist in advance. “If you know you get hyped up, anxious or angry every day when you leave work,” he says, “choose music that is similar to your mood state when you are in that situation.” Your song selections should reflect a gradual shift from the way you feel in the moment toward the way you want to feel.
“There’s always a piece of music that exactly encapsulates what I have felt,” Limb says, “whether it’s positive or negative.”
• “Memorable Experiences with Sad Music—Reasons, Reactions and Mechanisms of Three Types of Experiences,” PLOS One, June 2016. For this study, 2,436 survey responses from Finnish and U.K. populations were analyzed to investigate the experience of listening to sad music. Researchers found that three types of sadness can be experienced: grief-stricken sorrow, comforting sorrow and sweet sorrow. Read the full study.
• “Neural Substrates of Spontaneous Musical Performance: An fMRI Study of Jazz Improvisation,” PLOS One, February 2008. In this study, researchers took functional MRI brain scans of six professional jazz players while they improvised on the piano. A distinct pattern of changes in prefrontal brain activity was observed that may offer insight into the cognitive function involved in creativity. Read the full study.
• “The Mozart Effect: A quantitative EEG study,” Consciousness and Cognition, September 2015. In this study, researchers measured electrical activity in the brains of 10 healthy adults, average age 33; 10 healthy people, average age 85; and 10 people, average age 77, with mild cognitive impairment while they listened to Mozart and Beethoven. While listening to Mozart, changes in brain waves associated with memory, cognition and problem solving were observed in the young adults and the healthy elderly. Read a summary of the study. (A fee is required to access the full study.)
• “Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults,” Frontiers in Psychology, November 2013. For this study, 29 older adults (ages 60 to 84) were split into two groups. One group received daily piano lessons for four months while the second group participated in other leisure activities. Researchers measured the cognitive function, mood and quality of life of participants before and after intervention. Results showed that participants who took piano lessons had improved executive function, enhanced motor ability, decreased depression and increased quality of life. Read the full study
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