How Music Can Affect Your Mood, According to Psychological Research

Music affects our emotions in powerful but surprising ways, experts explain.

Lately, music has been getting sadder, according to a study in the journal Royal Society Open Science. And last week, Pitchfork published an article honing in on the factors behind that trend. There have been significant changes in the way we consume music, with ubiquitous streaming making soft emissions of sound almost constant. Quiet, mellow, and sad tunes now predominate, because they can hum softly in the background of any moment, Pitchfork suggests. But consuming all this sad music isn’t necessarily bad for us.

A robust scientific literature has tapped music consumption as a strong tool in “affect management,” or the ability to change or maintain different moods. Research published in the journal Music Perception found that music is even more powerful than participating in a writing exercise to improve your mood, and another study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found it was the second most effective out of 18 mood-regulatory strategies.

But how exactly we respond to a particular genre of music is intensely personal. The many psychological benefits of listening to music are tied more than anything to our preferences, according to William Ford Thompson, Ph.D., a professor at Australia’s Macquarie University, Director of the Music, Sound and Performance Lab, and author of the book Music, Thought and Feeling: Understanding the Psychology of Music. Glenn Schellenberg, Ph.D., a member of the department of Psychology at the University of Toronto, echoed this sentiment: “It depends on the listener, what they like and what they know.”

If you really love listening to a lot of those Billboard Hot 100 sadcore hits, you may actually be benefiting your psychological health in the process. “So-called ‘sad music’ doesn’t tend to make people feel sad — instead it often can bring people joy, nostalgia, wonder, transcendence, and peace,” Thompson explains. The same goes for a genre like heavy metal, which many may find abrasive, but fans of the genre typically find joy-inducing and empowering. So if sad music is humming in your kitchen from the moment you drop your keys on the counter until the moment you climb into bed, don’t worry that you’re negatively affecting your mood.

If you’re wondering how to optimize your mood improvement through music-listening, however, the experts have a few rules of thumb:

If you’re stressed

A song to start with: “Weightless” by Marconi Union

Slow tempo

“In general slow-tempo music is soothing,” Schellenberg says. If the notes progress slowly, regardless of how sad or happy the lyrics might be or what the genre is, you will likely feel a soothing, de-stressing effect.

Minor key

In Western music and culture, songs in a minor key are also often perceived as calming, although some research has indicated that it can register as “sad” as well as soothing, Schellenberg notes.

If you’re sad

A song to start with: “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen

Fast tempo

Fast-tempo music can energize and uplift, Schellenberg explains. Something with a quick, upbeat clip to its note progression will help you adjust towards a happier mental state.

Major key

Music composed in a major key, in Western culture, is typically uplifting and joy-inducing, Schellenberg adds. So try combining fast-tempo with a major key for maximum happiness.

If you want to enhance the emotional effects of music:

One way to enhance the positive emotional effects of music, according to research published in the journal Psychology of Music, is to listen (to any type!) with a close friend or partner. While the powerful benefits associated with listening to music still exist when you listen alone, they are even stronger when you co-listen with someone close to you. Try to set aside some time to sit down with your loved ones and really enjoy the music, whatever mood you are hoping to induce, and whatever type of music gets you there.

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