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.