The Way Music Affects Our Moods

The playlist we choose often matches our mood and reflects the day’s emotions. Whether listening to Billy Joel in the car with friends or mellow Phoebe Bridgers on a warm beach day, music helps us express what we are feeling.

It’s questionable whether listening to calm music when someone is already feeling down makes them feel better or worse. Is it healthier to completely distract yourself from your emotions or instead use music to help yourself express them?

“There definitely is a cathartic aspect to listening to sad music while being upset that makes feeling sad also sort of rewarding,” said Lexi Gibson, a sophomore student at Eastern Washington University. “You feel affirmed.”  

No matter the reason, we all want to feel affirmed in our emotions, and music may offer the best way to discover that affirmation. In Psychology Today, Doctor Shahram Heshmat explained that a big reason why listeners enjoy sad music is because of the emotional tie they share with the creator.

“Sad music can be experienced as an imaginary friend who provides support and empathy after the experience of a social loss,” said Heshmat. “The listener enjoys the mere presence of a virtual person, represented by the music, who is in the same mood and can help cope with sad feelings.”

But should we focus on the distraction of upbeat music instead of reveling in these emotions? Music can help us release feelings that we may not have control over. It can be challenging to find the line between affirmation and wallowing. 

Many studies argue both sides of the coin, including a survey conducted by the Human Neuroscience Journal, which found that listening to sad music doesn’t improve moods. The journal claims that sad music can elongate our experiences with them. 

“I think it really depends on the content of the lyrics,” Gibson said. “The sound of the music in general sort of just makes me feel justified in my feelings so that the space around me matches how I’m feeling, but I think if the lyrics of a song are incredibly specific to how I’m feeling, that can make me feel worse because it gives powerful words to my situation.” 

Music also changes our emotions depending on the world around us. We live incredibly fast-paced lives between studies, work and constant online social interactions. We are an overstimulated society that barely has the time to practice slowing down.

Psychology Today reported in 2019 that empathizing with yourself is a tactic used to help individuals overcome overstimulation. 

“The development of mindfulness and acceptance when dealing with emotions (observing feelings before taking action, learning to tolerate feelings; instead of saying ‘I want/must/should not feel this way,’ learning to say ‘I feel…, at the moment, and that’s OK’ or ‘I feel…, and I’m going to keep observing this feeling until it changes).” Calm music may be a catalyst for helping one sympathize with their own emotions. 

Varied themes within lyrics help people to understand their emotions while also recovering from them. For some, this may include listening to mournful folk music during a calmer part of the day. Contrastingly, it may be listening to rock when you’re feeling very energetic. Other people’s emotions may not be affected much by music choices.

There is research backing both theories. A study completed by the National Institute of Health (NIH) reported that “sad” music might be more enjoyable for different demographics just because it tends to give off a calmer music style. This more instrument-based, easy listening is lighter on the listener and can be pretty soothing. 

“I guess it just means that I have to be careful about which playlist I listen to when I’m already upset. I want to feel understood, but I also can’t listen for too long or to a song related to my situation. If something resonates too deeply with me, then it’ll definitely make me more distressed than I was before,” said Gibson.

The only person who can decide when you’re upset is you. If you need to be distracted, then focus on that. If you want to understand, then listen to that. A mixture of the two approaches may be perfect, making listeners feel affirmed while allowing them to move on.

Whether it’s Joy Division or Frank Sinatra that helps you during a hard day, enjoy the artists you love and figure out what works best for you.