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How Music Affects Your Mood

Girl with headphones on with title "How Music Affects Your Mood"

By: Chelsea Latorre, M.Ed.

The Power of Music

We all listen to music. But, did you know that music can be so much more than the vocals and beat? Leo Tolstoy, a famous writer, stated:

Music is the shorthand of emotion

We all experience music on a personal level where our emotions become involved, allowing the lyrics or tempo of the music to impact us. However, in order for music to be as influential as it can be, it is important to first understand your own emotions and the ways in which music can be effective in the various circumstances in your life.

Music That Fits Your Mood

Think about the music you listen to throughout each day of the week. Do you notice any changes in the types of songs or genres you listen to? For the most part, many people tend to listen to music that reflects their mood. For example, you may find yourself listening to more upbeat music when you are happy or more mellow music when you are sad.

It is easier for people to understand why listening to more upbeat music while they are happy can result in prolonged happiness, but it is more difficult to make sense of why people would want to “prolong” low feelings by listening to slower, more mellow songs. This idea piqued the curiosity of marketing and psychology researchers who initiated a study examining “mood-congruent” experiences. The researchers found that mood-congruent experiences (i.e., listening to a sad song while in a sad mood) served several functions, such as individuals feeling as though someone empathized with them and their experiences1.

This finding makes sense if we think about what we need most when we are sad or in a low mood. Think about the last time you felt sad. What did you need the most in that moment? Many people answer this question with something along the lines of “a friend to listen and really understand what I’m going through.” Having an understanding, empathic friend like this helps to improve your mood and provides you the space to overcome the challenges that you are facing. 

Sometimes that sad song can really feel like the friend that gets you in that moment. Whether it is the lyrics in the song or the tempo of the music, listening to these songs have been shown to have significant effects in shaping our mood similar to that of an understanding friend. In this way, listening to music that fits your mood can be very therapeutic and validating. The intent of listening to this type of music is not to prolong your negative mood, but to help you overcome it through relieving some of the pain through the music you are listening to. 

Challenging Yourself When You Need A Push

One of Bob Marley’s most influential lyrical quotes stated,

One good thing about music, when it hits you, you feel no pain

Just like you can use music to validate your emotions, you can also use music to challenge your moods (i.e., listening to upbeat music to try and improve your mood when you are feeling low). In fact, listening to music is often an effective coping strategy to help reduce distress. At first, you might be thinking that it cannot be that easy to change your mood with listening to a couple of songs. However, researchers suggest otherwise.

A study conducted by professors at Knox College and the University of Missouri examined whether music could facilitate happier mood states. They found that individuals who listened to positive music while being assigned to try and boost their mood reported more positive moods compared to individuals who listened to music without the assignment2. These findings suggest that you can improve your mood by listening to more upbeat music and that it is more successful when you also have the intention to be happier. So, when you find yourself in a place where you want to shake the bad mood off, use the intention you have for a good mood paired with a playlist that elicits positive vibes to reduce those negative emotions.



Make Your Own Playlists

Overall, music influences our mood. It is up to you to determine whether you want the influence to be a positive one. Many people tend to have a habit of choosing music that is based on negative feelings and, as we learned above, this behavior can only be beneficial when you are in need of some validation or deeper understanding. However, if you notice the music you choose to listen to makes your negative mood worse, it might be more helpful to challenge that mood rather than to encourage it.

So, before you create a playlist of songs, consider your range of emotions. Create playlists that both fit with your range of emotions and include playlists that help to challenge those negative emotions. Creating the playlists may not be as difficult as choosing the songs and types of music that go into that playlist. When considering what songs to include, keep in mind the following:

Songs can elicit more than one emotion

For example, a specific song can help you feel validated when you are sad and can also remind you of all that you have overcome (which can result in you feeling happier and having more gratitude in your life). Your playlists don’t have to be strictly independent. When you’re listening to songs, allow yourself to feel the variety of emotions the music elicits from you and add them to the playlist(s) that are most fitting.  

Your new, favorite jam may be the song you hated last year

Have you ever listened to a song once and hated it, only to listen to it again months later and have a newfound love for it? This isn’t surprising because you yourself are not the same person you were months ago. Maybe the song lyrics described an event you had not experienced before which made it difficult to initially connect with. Your playlists will continue to grow alongside you. Don’t be surprised if you add new songs to your playlists that did not fit your vibe before. 

The song that used to make you feel better may not in the future

Similar to what was explained above, your music preferences and the way music elicits emotions from you will change overtime. Don’t beat yourself up if the song that made you feel happy last year doesn’t work when you try to boost your mood today. Maybe it’s time to update that playlist so that it meets you where you are at in the present moment. This is common with all coping strategies – they need updated every so often. It’s okay to delete songs or move them to different playlists as your situations and general understanding of your emotions change. 

References:

1.      Lee, C.J., Andrade E.B., & Palmer, S.E. (2013). Interpersonal relationships and preferences for mood-congruency in aesthetic experiences. Journal of Consumer Research, 40(2), 382-391. doi: 10.1086/670609

2.      Ferguson, Y.L., & Sheldon, K.M. (2013). Trying to be happier really can work: Two experimental studies. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(1), 23-33. doi: 10.1080/17439760.2012.747000


Chelsea Latorre

Chelsea is a 4th year doctoral candidate in Counseling Psychology at WVU. She is a supervised advanced trainee at the Carruth Center, where she provides individual and group counseling to students. She is involved in various outreach programs on-campus and is passionate about helping students achieve their full potential. Check out our upcoming workshops! Interested in scheduling a workshop for your organization/group on campus? Request a program on our outreach and consultation page.  

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