In the Mood for Music: How Your Music May be Manipulating Your Emotions

Written by Jenna Knaupp

“How is it that music can, without words, evoke our laughter, our fears, our highest aspirations?” ~Jane Swan

While many people realize that music can “evoke our laughter”, they fail to recognize that it can also “[evoke] our fears”. That is to say, music can recreate our fears or negativities in such a real way that we cannot distinguish between our own anxieties and those simulated by music. Oxford University Press published a short journal in 2013 about “Interpersonal Relationships and Preferences for Mood-Congruency in Aesthetic Experiences”. Its researchers theorized on mood congruence; when an individual’s current mood or mental state determines the memories that their mind recalls. While this is already a supported theory, they attempted to explain why people are “more likely to prefer mood-congruent to mood-incongruent aesthetic stimuli”[1]. They suggested that mood-congruent aesthetic experiences may act as a substitute for empathy, and hence, these experiences are preferred when emotional distress results from a failed or failing interpersonal relationship. Mood-congruent experiences were also found to be preferred when a person was having normative issues (internal conflict over how something should have been)[1] or when an individual was experiencing one of the six basic emotions (4 of which involve negativity). This explains why people tend to listen to emotional or melancholy music when they are feeling distressed or forlorn. However, we must be cautious with our music choices. If we are not aware of them, we may subject ourselves to long periods of trauma, without realizing that our sadness only stems from the sorrowful music we are listening to.

Because the brain prefers mood-congruent music; it can be suggested that those who only listen to sad music will train their brain to only respond to (or prefer) “sad” music. This will greatly manifest itself in their emotional and mental health; in which the individual will struggle with pessimism and self-doubt. Reversely, if someone listens to purely optimistic music, they will tend to have optimistic opinions and attitudes. This is a valid argument, as another behavioral and neuroscientific study discovered that increased rumination over lyrics and tragedies within a sad song can be linked to poor mental health. Within this particular study, it was discovered that music affects the medial prefrontal cortex, or the “mPFC” [2]. Researchers hypothesized and loosely concluded that certain listening styles (i.e. sad music) can have long-term effects on the brain (specifically, the mPFC region). These “long-term effects” are particularly dangerous, as the mPFC region is composed of several Brodmann areas and other regions which involve (but are not limited to): empathy [3], processing pleasant and unpleasant emotional scenes [4], self-criticism [5], suppressing sadness [6], and inductive reasoning [7]. If the mPFC region is exposed to music with negative or distressing themes, it will have difficulty with social and emotional control, as well as other high-level functions.

Music has the ability to affect and/or determine our long-term mood, self-expression, and choices. While it can have therapeutic and calming effects on our mental state, it can likewise destroy our internal wellbeing. It would be wise for each of us to re-evaluate the music we surround ourselves with, and choose that which will “[evoke] our highest aspirations”, instead of our greatest fears.

[1] C. J. Lee, E. B. Andrade, S. E. Palmer. “Interpersonal Relationships and Preferences for Mood-Congruency in Aesthetic Experiences”.Journal of Consumer Research, Vol. 40, No. 2 pp. 382-391, August 2013.

[2] E. Carlson, S. Saarikallio, P. Toiviainen, B. Bogert, M. Kliuchko, E. Brattico. “Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: a behavioral and neuroimaging study of males and females”. Front. Hum. Neuroscience, 26 August 2015.

[3] T.F. Farrow, Y. Zheng , I.D. Wilkinson  et al. (August 2001). “Investigating the functional anatomy of empathy and forgiveness”. Ovid, NeuroReport. August 2001.

[4] R.D. Lane, E. M. Reiman, M. M. Bradley, et al. “Neuroanatomical correlates of pleasant and unpleasant emotion”. NCBI, Neuropsychologia. November 1997.

[5] S. Abrahams, L. H. Goldstein, A. Simmons, et al. “Functional magnetic resonance imaging of verbal fluency and confrontation naming using compressed image acquisition to permit overt responses”. Wiley Online Library, Human Brain Mapping. September 2003.

[6] S. Kaur, R.B Sassi, D. Axelson, et al. “Cingulate cortex anatomical abnormalities in children and adolescents with bipolar disorder”. Psychiatry Online, The American Journal of Psychiatry. September 2005.

[7] V. Goel, B.Gold, S. Kapur, S. Houle S.“The seats of reason? An imaging study of deductive and inductive reasoning”. Ovid, NeuroReport. March 1997.


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