Like most people, music fuels a large part of my life.
In times of emotional highs and lows, I turn to music as a way of making sense of different experiences. I’m one of those annoying people who, once I find a song that I connect with, will play it on repeat. All day. All week if I have to. (Apologies and love to my former housemate for never once complaining!).
Music has an incredible impact on our emotional states. It has the power to help us feel like we’re not alone, and sometimes the right lyric can save us. It’s no surprise that we seek out songs that align with our current states of being.
We tend to make our musical choices unconsciously, through feeling and meaning rather than deliberate choice. But how helpful is this?
Knowing that music has such an influence on our mood, perhaps when we’re feeling sad we need to be reaching for the songs that match how we want to be feeling, rather than those that match how we actually feel?
All By Myself
Research has long shown that sad music intensifies negative emotions in people with a disposition towards rumination and depression. Rumination refers to the tendency to repetitively think about negative emotional situations, and the causes behind them. Listening to sad music amplifies feelings of sadness and can lead to individuals ruminating more about negative or stressful situations in their life, both past and present.
I think we can all relate to this idea, particularly with difficult situations we’ve gone through. When we experience a breakup we’re drawn to music of the same theme, reliving and overthinking the situation. Compare this to the “lightbulb” moment during your breakup process when you switched to a happier song — how did that impact your mood, however briefly?
Garrido, Eerola & McFerran (2017) conducted research looking at how individuals experiencing depression used music to ruminate about their experiences. They specifically focused on how they might use music within group settings to see whether this form of ruminating provided stronger social cohesion and positive benefits.
The results revealed that people with depression used music to ruminate individually, and were more likely to do so in a group setting, too. But they also found that ruminating over music in a group became a tool for building coping strategies — including reflecting. The study’s findings go some way to offering insight into the ways in which group interactions around music can support individuals and provide important social benefits.
A Change Gone Come
It’s good to know that listening to, and ruminating on, sad music with friends can actually be a productive activity. However, if you’re anything like me, most of us have the tendency to indulge our ruminative disposition solo.
The answer, as with many things in life, is around self-awareness. Simply being aware of how music influences your mood can allow you to make changes to how you use it to create a more positive frame of mind.
Katrina McFerran, a music therapist based in Melbourne, sought to demonstrate this first hand through her work with young people. Essentially she wanted to highlight to young people that being more conscious of the ways they engaged with music could help them avoid the rumination trap.
In partnership with Headspace, McFerran and two other therapists worked with young people to assess how they engaged with music and created a two-session intervention to see how they could encourage them to use music more positively.
Using the Healthy-Unhealthy Music Scale (HUMS), they were able to ascertain how young people were currently using music and if they were aware that the ways they used music were healthy or unhealthy. The great part about this study was that it focused on starting a conversation and increasing awareness as a priority.
As I mentioned above, music is a big part of my life, and I’m sure many of you agree. What can be difficult (and I will admit this myself) is acknowledging that those songs we’re addicted to are effectively keeping us stuck in our negative loop. And that one of the main reasons we’re so addicted to it is because it allows us to continue with our ruminating. It feeds our negativity.
Once we actually take the time to consider what we’re listening to and just how much it influences us, it can be a real lightbulb moment that causes us to reflect on our behaviours — and make positive changes.
Which is exactly what McFerran found through her work.
Through increased awareness, young people reported feeling a greater sense of agency around how they could use music to support them in healthy ways. Young people continuously report how important music is to them, so giving them the tools to think about how they could put it to action to promote positive mental health and cope with stressful situations is a huge breakthrough.
I’m a big fan of a weepy indie ballad, and nothing’s going to change that. But I know that listening to 20 such songs in a row will leave me contemplative and, let’s face it, stuck in a ruminating rut.
The good news is using music to change your mood doesn’t have to mean changing your music preferences. It’s about how you use specific songs. Psychological research has repeatedly shown us that in order to incite a long-lasting change, the best effects come from creating small, gradual changes.
Playlists are a great way to use music to do this. They’re perfect for helping you to work through negative emotions by first acknowledging them, and then leading them into something better.
Creating a playlist that starts off with a couple of sadder songs but gradually builds into songs that you know help you feel more positive is the way to go. Ending your playlist with positive music will leave you with a good feeling you can take forward into your day.
And it doesn’t have to end there! A tailored playlist can help keep you motivated in a number of areas of your life. For me, a playlist of big Beyonce hits definitely helps motivate me when it comes to hitting the gym!
As mentioned, the key thing to take away from this is that music has an enormous power to influence our moods, and with better awareness of that, we can make small changes around our music listening habits that can lead to real positive differences in our daily lives.
That’s pretty empowering.