Music can be a powerful tool to acknowledge, work through or release our emotions; to lift or ‘allow’ us to sit with our various moods.
We listen to music for nearly every reason that there is; when we are happy, sad, tired, energised, calm, angry, anxious, content, partying, studying, celebrating, grieving…
It is such a powerful, universal medium that has the ability to ground us, heal us, and allow us the freedom to really work through our moods and experiences in life, whether they be positive or negative, or somewhere in between. For most people, whether they realise it or not, music has a huge impact on our lives.
Think back to the most significant moments or times in your life, and chances are that there may be a certain song associated with them somehow. In some ways music can be a backdrop to our lives. Think about how powerful that scene in your favourite movie would be without the background music, guiding us to feel the emotion the director had intended.
Music can have a profound effect on our wellbeing. The music we choose to listen to can help to regulate our moods and allow us an outlet to process difficult times in our lives. Remember when you were heartbroken over a relationship ending and you listened to that sad song, over and over and over again? What this can allow and validate is our need to feel, process, feel understood and like we are not alone- to come out of these situations in a healthy way, and that same sad song is a vehicle that can provide an outlet for those things to happen.
Music can have a great impact on our wellbeing in other contexts too. Many people choose music as a way to relax, soothe, and improve concentration. Research has found that when patients were able to listen to their preferred music selection in hospital settings, it reduced both pain perception and anxiety levels.
Interestingly, research has also found that how familiar we are with the music we listen to and its lyrics actually has an effect on its ability to lower our anxiety and help us to feel more in control. This suggests that our tried and true favourite songs are the ones we should play if we’re feeling anxious and need to unwind effectively.
It has also been found that if we are experiencing a low mood, we typically 1) select music that either differs from the negative mood to try and improve it, or, 2) we choose music that reflects the negative mood in an effort to cope with and validate our negative feelings. The outcomes of these two choices were found to differ depending on a variety of factors. It was found that we do indeed use music to improve, maintain or intensify a mood, and this can be positive or negative depending on your emotional state.
When we are choosing to listen to music, it can often inherently be an unintentional (or intentional) form of checking in with ourselves and often serves a self-help function for us. When you are browsing your music collection, you are often unconsciously going through a process of identifying;
- how do I feel right now?
- how do I want to feel?
- what music will help me feel like this?
In this sense, music can be a great way to care for our wellbeing, if we choose it wisely. This is because in choosing music we are not merely randomly putting on a song to fill the silence, but we are often (whether it be consciously or subconsciously) leaning into our current feelings and choosing how we want to navigate and shape them.
In this sense, it’s a great idea to have some playlists saved on your phone or in your music collection that accommodate different moods and what you might be wanting to incite. Do you have particular favourite songs that energise you and perk you up when you’re feeling a bit flat or tired? Do you have songs that comfort you and help you to feel safe? Do you have songs or types of music that help you to concentrate, focus and think to be more productive? Are there songs that help you to work through and release grief in a positive way?
If you don’t have many ideas for songs in some categories, music apps like Spotify are great for exploration of different genres of music. It has existing playlists as well as a search function, and nearly every song imaginable is stored there for your access whenever you like, so you can build and save your ideal playlists. I remember as a child waiting for that beloved new song to come on the radio so you could hit record on the cassette player to make a mix tape. Wow, how times have changed that we are lucky enough to have access to any song our heart desires 24/7!
A Note on ‘Unhelpful’ Listening Habits
It’s important to note that there are times when our choice of music is not serving our best interests, and can actually pull us into an unhealthy spiral of further or intensified negative emotions.
If you are depressed (or prone to low mood) and your music choice is mirroring that, it may actually intensify your depressive state and not allow you to work through it in a healthy way.
Similarly, sometimes when we are experiencing low mood, it is not helpful to listen to music on ‘shuffle’. The unpredictability of what music will influence your mood here can do more harm than good. It is best to be intentional and choose music that will uplift and improve your state of mind and allow you to cope with your emotions in a healthy way.
It’s always important for us to learn what our triggers are and to know our limits. If you know that listening to a particular song on repeat is not going to help but hinder you, try to resist pressing play on that one, and opt for a more upbeat alternative that might help pull you out of your low mood.
Share below in the comments, what is your all-time favourite song, and what music do you listen to that improves your mood?
 Pothoulaki, M., MacDonald, R. A. R, & Flowers, P (2008). An Investigation of the Effects of Music on Anxiety and Pain Perception in Patients Undergoing Haemodialysis Treatment. Journal of Health Psychology, 13(7), 912-920.
 MacDonald, R. A. R., Mitchell, L., Dillon, T., Serpell, M. G., Davies, J. B., & Ashley, E. A. (2003). An Empirical Investigation of the Anxiolytic and Pain Reducing Effects of Music. Psychology of Music, 31(2), 187-203.
 Spielberger, C. D. (1983). State-trait anxiety inventory for adults menlo. Park, CA: Mind Garden.
 Stewart J, Garrido S, Hense C and McFerran K (2019) Music Use for Mood Regulation: Self-Awareness and Conscious Listening Choices in Young People With Tendencies to Depression. Front. Psychol. 10:1199. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01199.
 Stewart J, Garrido S, Hense C and McFerran K (2019) Music Use for Mood Regulation: Self-Awareness and Conscious Listening Choices in Young People With Tendencies to Depression. Front. Psychol. 10:1199. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.01