Help! I want to figure out the link between music and mood regulation!

Question: Moods seem to influence the music we listen to! When we are sad, we tend to generally prefer to hear sad songs. Why do we do that? Some people in fact say that this makes them feel better! Is this really useful?

Answer: Indeed it is a paradox! In real life negative emotions such as sadness are avoided. Sadness in real life is typically seen as undesirable. But in art-forms such as music, sadness is sought after by many. In fact some of the most beautiful and profound listening experiences are associated with sad music. Research on why people listen to sad music has indicated that, during musical experience, sad music can evoke pleasantness. It appears that we perceive the sadness in music but feel nostalgic more than sadness, as well as pleasure while listening to sad music. Appreciation of sad music follows a mood-congruent fashion. This means, that people may tend to listen to sad music when they are experiencing sadness in real life. We not only empathize with the sadness in music, but the nostalgia triggered by sad music facilitates empathy with past real experiences or even imaginary future experiences. Listening to music can influence regulation of negative emotions and mood.

Question: How music might be associated with mood? What is the science behind it?

Answer: Why music evokes emotions? This has been deliberated for ages by philosophers, musicians and psychologists. Perhaps there is no one answer or easy explanation for this question. Music affects emotion and mood due to multiple reasons. Music has various components such as pitch, melody, rhythm, lyrics so and so forth. A complex interaction of these various components makes music affect our biological as well as psychological system. Here I use the term biological to encompass various physiological changes such as heart rate, skin temperature, and respiration neurochemical changes such as levels of cortisol, as music engages many areas of the brain to process music. Psychological processes involves not only emotional domain but also neurocognitive domain as music affects our emotions as well as engages a host of cognitive processes such as attention, information processing, memory and meta-cognitive processes.

Musical features such as the melody, the tones, speed of rhythm and the timbre or the instrument/voice are known to impact the emotions expressed and experienced. For instance certain ragas of Indian classical music strongly evoke emotions such as happiness, joy and peacefulness while certain other ragas evoke negative emotions such as sadness, sorrow, feelings of longing etc. The lyrics too add to the evocation of these emotions. This also forms the basis for our body to respond to music, even if the given music is not of our choice. To cite an example, whether we like the taste some medicine or not, the effect it has on our body remains the same. Similarly even if a person is not exposed to ragas of Indian classical music, a given excerpt of raga may evoke certain emotions and have its effect on the biological system.

Music chosen by self, often matches with one’s emotional state or facilitates emotional regulation. This can be strongly liked to one’s past memories and recollection of those. Music therefore can provide scope for emotional ventilation or emotional catharsis. Sometime thoughts and feeling that are hard to express through words can be felt and communicated through music.

Question: How music might is associated with mood? What is the science behind it? Can music be consciously used by people who are feeling low to improve their mood? Is it as simple as listening to ‘happy’ music…? It is not actually easy for people to do that when they are feeling low. What would be some of your suggestions about this?

Answer: Actively listening to music or music in the background can affect our mood. Passively listening to music or actively involving in music such as singing or playing an instrument can have effects on mood. There is a lot more research needed on when and for whom, what kind of music may help.

It would useful to explore what may help you and when -as there are individual differences in styles of mood regulation and preferences. Based on what is known through research, several of us may feel attracted to the music that matches one’s mood at any given point of time and listening to mood- matching music can also provide an opportunity to get in touch with one’s thoughts and feelings, express them, experience a sense of relief and start feeling better.

On the other hand, some of us may find it easier to shift our attention rather easily to those cues that change/improve our mood (including listening to music that gives rise to a different mood). For those who find it difficult to do so, it may be worth experimenting as to how one could slowly shift over time from music that matches one’s negative mood initially (to allow catharsis) to music that is uplifting and elevating ( to shift/improve the mood) during any given period when one is feeling sad.

Cautionary notes: Some of us who have a tendency to repeatedly go over one’s negative experiences, thoughts and feelings again and again (a ruminating style) may find that listening to sad music actually prolongs the duration of negative mood, although one may feel inclined to listen to such music. In such instances, what might be critical is to learn to use different kinds of healthy strategies for mood regulation rather than relying on rumination which can deepen or prolong negative mood states.

Moreover, habitual patterns of listening to certain kinds of music are also likely to have long- term effects and we need to take time to monitor and reflect about how the music we listen to- on regular basis- influences us, in order to make choices that are wise for us.


Expert: Dr Shantala Hegde

Assistant Professor

Dept. of Clinical Psychology, NIMHANS, Bangalore