Research has revealed that listening to music that resonates with painful emotions may detrimentally alter our levels of anxiety, anger or sadness. This link between music and mood is a serious one: our choices potentially have a long-term impact on the brain and emotional regulation. Emily Carlson, a music therapist and the main researcher states:
We hope our research encourages music therapists to talk with their clients about their music use outside the session … and encourages everyone to think about how the different ways they use music might help or harm their own well-being.
This is a subject close to my heart. So I can think of nothing more wonderful than spending a few moments indulging in thinking about music and mood. If you are like me then you perhaps desperately want to tell yourself that listening to sad music when you’re sad makes you feel better. Deep down though you may suspect that the research is right. Perhaps we can find an explanation that allows for both of these possibilities?
At this point, I get to use one of my favourite words – anthropomorphism. Imagine that when we listen to music we anthropomorphise it. In other words, we attribute human-like qualities and moods to the music. We hear in the music a narrative expression. It is as though it were feeling and communicating an emotional state or journey. We recognise the music, and relate to it, as though it were a living being capable of feeling great joy, deep pain and everything in between.
If we approach music in this way then it is inevitable that in order to try to understand the music, what it expresses and the meaning behind it, we must tap into what we might call a window of insight. That is to say, our own experience of emotion allows us to identify emotion in the music, such as sadness.
Windows of insight are both a wonderful and dangerous thing. They can help us feel less alone in the world and more understood. However, they can also open up old wounds or result in us over-identifying with something, taking on things that don’t belong to us.
Music and mood: A guide to self-care
Given the serious impact music can have on mood, I asked myself how can I continue to enjoy my favourite “painful-sounding” music without it having a negative impact on my mood? Here are my tips to enjoying the benefits of listening to sad or [input any other feeling you may want] music without becoming overwhelmed.
Imagine the music is your therapist
You go to your therapist (i.e. the music). Do you feel as though the music’s reflections empathise with your sadness in a helpful way? Does it allow you to express your sadness without you feeling judged or forced into thinking about things you might rather avoid? Do you come away feeling better?
It is okay to feel sad and it may be that the music provides a space for these feelings but be honest with yourself about whether this therapeutic approach is helping. If alarm bells are ringing in your head then remember it is okay to listen to these. Perhaps take a break or find a different therapist. Keep yourself safe and listen to your instincts.
Imagine you are the music’s therapist
Imagine you are listening to someone who is feeling sad. It could be a client or a friend. Are you maintaining helpful boundaries? Can you allow Music (otherwise know as your client or friend) to express its sadness without becoming over-involved? Is it bringing things up for you in a way that feels unhelpful for your own emotional wellbeing? How are you going to take care of yourself whilst listening to Music? Do you need to spend less time with it? Or do you need to balance it out with spending time with people who are feeling happier?
Make a list of the pros and cons
What do you get from the music and what is taken from you? Has the music become like a friend who saps all your energy and doesn’t give you anything back? Could you make changes to the relationship to allow you to experience more of the pros and less of the cons? Or do you need to find a new friend?
On a final note …
It is okay to feel sad. Sadness isn’t a “bad” thing that you must never feel but you do not need to hold on tight either. This is easier said than done sometimes (and perhaps we will talk more about the ‘benefits’ and values of sadness in a future post) but if you do become aware that certain lifestyle choices are contributing to maintaining your sadness then it is okay to think about whether you may like to make changes. Remember you deserve the chance to feel other emotions too.
And on that note, I am off to listen to …
Let me know your experiences of listening to sad music below and if this subject interests you then I highly recommend Jenefer Robinson’s book, Deeper than Reason: Emotion and its role in Literature, Music and Art.