7 ways music can help us regulate our emotions
The powerful emotional connections we make with music, and the similar responses it induces in us, are what make many of us spend one quarter of our waking hours listening to it. In other words, we value music so highly because it makes us feel something. And that makes it the perfect medium through which to regulate and manage our emotions.
The perfect playlist
If streaming is your thing, what better way to keep your emotions in check than via the perfect playlist? From Red Wine Over Dinner to Get Popped!, Spotify, for example, offers something for everyone. What's more, some of the most popular playlists centre around moods and emotions. Take Mood Booster or Life Sucks, for instance. They may sound depressing, but research has shown that listening to playlists like this when we're sad can actually make us feel better.
This incongruity is sometimes referred to as the 'sweet sorrow’ effect, the painful-yet-delicious feeling we derive from listening to music that makes us cry. It's as if, as the Ancient Greeks believed, music has the power to purge us of pent-up emotions, helping us maintain emotional homeostasis.
In fact, an elegant study by Suvi Saarikallio and Jaakko Erkkilä at the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, in which adolescents were surveyed concerning how they used music to regulate and manage their moods, revealed that we may use as many as seven different such strategies.
On the most basic level, music provides us with stimulation. It lifts our spirits before we go out, helps pass the time while cleaning. We use it to accompany us on our travels, when reading and when surfing the web. When we use music as entertainment, we tend to listen to music in the background, and are mostly alone when doing so. This is probably our most common way of experiencing music. It’s a background element, the most basic part of the soundtrack to our lives.
This strategy reflects how music revitalises us in the morning, and calms us in the evening. When we use music to regulate our emotions using this strategy, we mainly listen, but we might also sing, play or write music. The end goal of this strategy is to replenish our energy reserves.
3. Strong sensation
One of the most powerful effects of music is the strong sensations it can evoke within us. Particularly for those actually performing it, though for most listeners too, music can provide a deep, thrilling emotional experience. So-called sensation-seekers — think of the Jackass guys, and others in a similar vein — in particular would be likely to engage in this strategy to really feel something from the music.
When we’re feeling angry or sad, or have disruptive or annoying thoughts, music can act as a great distractor to help divert us from what’s on our mind. The best way to lift us out of such a mood using this strategy is to listen to, sing along with, or play happy and pleasant music either alone or with others. Here, the goal is to adopt the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach, to simply focus on something else and leave our troubles behind.
This mood regulation strategy is especially useful when we’re feeling angry, sad or depressed. By listening to music matching these deep moods, it can release the emotions we feel by purging and cleansing us of those feelings. This is most likely what underlies the 'sweet sorrow' phenomena mentioned above.
6. Mental work
Music can encourage daydreaming, helping us drift into old memories, explore the past, eliciting feelings of nostalgia. As we’ve seen previously, nostalgia can have all kinds of positive emotional and psychological effects on us — it can lift our mood, bolster our self-esteem, enhance the perceived meaningfulness of life, make us feel more connected with others, and increase our level of empathy. In general, it makes us feel part of something bigger.
This also underpins one of the great benefits of access-based streaming platforms — the ease with which we can listen to virtually any track that might help us drift off, revisit the past, connect with times and people gone by. Of course, streaming platforms enhance our ability to engage in all of these strategies, but mental work, especially in the context of nostalgia-fulfilment, seems particularly fitting.
To paraphrase James Taylor, when we’re feeling sad and troubled, and we literally need a helping hand, listening to music with lyrics we can relate to can help us feel understood and comforted. We feel consoled simply by knowing that someone else out there understands what we’re going through, that we’re not alone, creating a powerful experience that provides relief and support.
A music-based strategy for every occasion
Saarikallio and Erkkilä’s work suggests that, however we’re feeling — whether high, low, or in need of a change of mood — chances are there’s a music-based strategy we can use to achieve our goal. And remember, it's not all about lifting yourself up. In order to maintain emotional balance, sometimes it's necessary for us to actually bring ourselves down.
Either way, music is the perfect tool for the job.
Discover more about the science of sound and music in The Experience Factor: How Hit Songs Hack Your Mind Heart And Body To Keep You Listening Again And Again.