By Ricky O’Bannon
robannon@bsomusic.org

It should be no surprise that listening to music can have a profound effect on our emotional state, but we might not often think about what we listen to — or more importantly, why we listen to it — as either a tool or even detriment to our emotional well being.

Imagine a future where just like a family doctor might ask us about our diet and exercise, a mental health professional might ask what’s on your playlist.

While it might be obvious that music can impact our emotions, serious research and clinical trials on the topic have really only been started in the past decade. A recent paper by Finnish and Danish researchers that was published in the scientific journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience tried looking into how we listen to music and whether those reasons can actually be counterproductive in how we cope with things like anxiety or depression.

The idea that music might help us either break out of an emotional funk or continue to wallow in it seems instinctively true. For example, that week your college roommate spent without leaving the house and listening to Elliot Smith on repeat after that bad breakup probably wasn’t very productive. However, it is a hard thing to quantify and something the growing field of music therapy wants to better understand.

For the study, researchers assessed 123 volunteers from Helsinki in terms of mental health, asked them a series of questions to see what mood-regulating strategies they employed when listening to music and finally recorded their neural activity while listening to soundtrack clips designed to elicit particular emotions.

Mood-regulating strategies for listening to music broke down into seven categories: entertainment, revival, strong sensation, mental work diversion, discharge and solace. The latter three — solace, diversion and discharge — are associated with coping with negative mood states. Diversion describes a strategy of using music as a distraction while solace refers to a strategy of listening to music that reflects that negative mood state with the outcome of the listener feeling comfort. Discharge on the other hand is more about outwardly expressing those interior negative emotions, often described as listening to music to blow off steam.

Researchers were particularly interested in that last strategy because they wanted to know whether that type of listening, while it might outwardly express internal negative emotions, might also lead the listener to focus and ruminate on that negative emotion. In essence, there might be a difference between listening to music for catharsis and to process our emotion versus listening to it just to reinforce our state of mind.

“This style of listening results in the feeling of expression of negative feelings, not necessarily improving the negative mood,” said Dr. Suvi Saarikallio in a release, who is a co-author on the study.

Interestingly, the data showed some distinct differences in the results for male and female volunteers. Woman participants in the study were more likely to score highly in neuroticism and to listen to music for purposes of diversion. Listening to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings regularly was linked with higher scores in anxiety and neuroticism, but the relationship was particularly noticeable in males.

Brain scans also showed the area of the brain’s pre-frontal cortex used to process music emotions was activated more strongly for female subjects who used music for diversion, but it was decreased for males who scored highly on discharge. Elvira Brattico, a senior author on the study, said that result suggests that listening styles could actually have long-term effects on the brain. Higher pre-frontal cortex activity suggests a better ability to regulate mood. If it is showing decreased activity, and if there is a link between decreased activity and participants who use the discharge strategy or “listen to music to blow off steam,” it could suggest that type of listening style does more harm than good whereas diversion might be a better strategy to cope with negative emotions.

The authors on the paper are the first to say that their findings point for a need for further research on this topic. We are only beginning to understand just how music affects the brain. Yet the research is intriguing because it starts to measure something we all know: music is powerful and it is often an emotional experience. Because of that, it might be worth spending a little more time thinking not only about what we listen to but why — just like it also might be worthwhile to encourage your roommate going on that Elliot Smith binge to get out of the house.