Listening to music is a form of emotional self-care that many of us turn to every day, without much conscious thought. The streaming service Spotify, well aware of this, offers a collection of “Mood” playlists, from “Anthems of Angst” to “Running Thru a Field of Smiles,” to my personal favorite, “The Happy Hipster.”
While music’s therapeutic qualities have long been known—Aristotle described music as a force to purify the emotions—music therapy as it exists today began in the early-mid 20th century, when musicians in the U.K. travelled to hospitals and played music for soldiers suffering emotional and physical trauma after World Wars I and II.
Music therapy is now a sanctioned form of health care with clinical, quantitative research to back it up. In some cases, it’s as effective as traditional forms of therapy, especially for adolescents with mood disorders or adults with depression. One tool music therapists use with patients—along with actively playing or composing music—is guiding patients through the music listening experience, helping them to process what they are thinking and feeling. What we do when we put on headphones is, in many ways, just a self-guided version of this process.
And it often feels good to listen to Aretha Franklin to lift our spirits, or croon along with Adele to make sense of a breakup. But is it also possible to listen to music in ways that sabotage our mental health?
This is the question that Emily Carlson, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Music at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, explored in a recent study.
The study asked 123 participants about their music-listening habits using a scale developed by one of the study’s co-authors. This scale assessed how much people tended to use seven different music mood-regulation strategies, based on their agreement with statements like “When I'm angry with someone, I listen to music that expresses my anger.”
Of particular interest were the three strategies in which people use music to deal with negative moods: Diversion, where music is used as a distraction from negative thoughts and feelings; Solace, where music is used to search for comfort, acceptance, and understanding when feeling sad or troubled; and Discharge, where anger or sadness are released through music (think of a mosh pit in the mind).
All of the participants were assessed for depression, and anxiety, and levels of the trait neuroticism, one of the Big Five personality dimensions associated with a predisposition for mood disorders. Half then had fMRI imaging on their brains while they listened to a selection of wordless musical samples that tended to evoke sadness, happiness, or fear. Carlson and her colleagues were most interested in the activity of the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain widely thought to be related to subconscious mood regulation. Irregular activity in the mPFC has consistently shown up in those suffering from depression.
Carlson and her team found that of all the music-listening strategies, Discharge—using music to express negative emotions—correlated with higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism in all of the participants, but especially men. In turn, the fMRI data revealed that those men who tended to use the Discharge strategy more showed decreased mPFC activity during music listening.
Interpreting these results is a little tricky, because while Discharge is the only music-listening strategy that doesn’t aim to make mood more positive, it’s also true that the expression of an emotion, even a negative one, is part of healthy emotional regulation. Carlson notes that it is difficult to draw the line between healthy versus unhealthy expression of negative emotions.
Still, the correlation suggests that Discharge is linked with some less healthy emotional habits. Carlson noted that Discharge has some parallels with emotion-regulation strategies that have been found to be maladaptive—like rumination, when a person compulsively focuses on negative thoughts and feelings, and what caused them, instead of considering solutions or putting the problem in perspective.
She speculates that more than, say, Diversion—which was a more common strategy among females—Discharge could amplify a negative feeling, or play into what is called an “externalizing strategy:” directing negative feelings and behaviors outward, into the environment.
“Externalizing is more of a male coping mechanism, which may also be one of the reasons we see it related to the negative feelings in males as opposed to in females,” said Carlson, adding that still, “I don’t think it’s fair to say that Discharge is all-around bad.”
The science of music’s effect on the brain is relatively new. Many of the ideas we’ve long had about music have only in the past decade been scrutinized by psychologists like Daniel Levitin. The neuroscientific study of music’s therapeutic value is especially new, and this study is just a first step. The scale Carlson and her colleagues used to classify people’s music-listening habits is useful, but an alternative classification scheme may be needed to determine exactly what is going on with the Discharge results.
Still, studies like this emphasize how particular our engagement with music can be. In the past, entire genres like punk or heavy metal were accused of being inherently damaging to adolescents’ mental health. The reality is likely much more complicated. Some may seek out Metallica’s rapid riffs and screeching guitars to gain solace; others may vent anger through Mozart.
“Individual differences, from gender to personality to cognitive style, matter so much in what your experience—your phenomenological response—is to music,” Carlson says.
Is there a quick way to figure out whether your own music-listening habits are healthy or not? Not exactly, but a little bit of introspection goes a long way. If your listening choices tend to stoke the flames of your rage, or deepen feelings of woe, it may be best to avoid the “Unleash the Fury” or “Forever Alone” Spotify playlists, and embrace your inner happy hipster.