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Listening to music is one of the most common ways we manage our stress and emotions.

When we feel tired after a long day at work, many of us like to unwind by kicking back, closing our eyes, and turning on our iPods. Or when we feel down after a heated argument with a boyfriend or girlfriend, we may listen to some uplifting tunes to help distract us from our anger or sadness.

Even at this very moment I’m listening to some calm instrumental rock music, because it helps me stay relaxed and focused when I’m writing.

These are just some of the ways we use music to improve our psychology. And more and more research is beginning to show that music can serve a very positive function in our everyday lives.


Music and stress management

In a 2012 study done by University of Gothenburg in Sweden, it was found that participants who listened to music after a stressful episode in their everyday lives reported decreased levels of stress when compared to individuals who didn’t listen to music after a stressful episode.

And in another study done by the same team of researchers, it was found that listening to music was an effective way to reduce long-term cortisol levels, a hormone commonly released when we are experiencing stress. This suggests that listening to music can have a real biological effect on our mental health.

Listening to music can be a big part of art therapy, and these new studies are consistent with a growing body of research that shows the benefits of music on our stress and anxiety.

To note just a couple other related studies: a 2011 study from Drexel University found that music reduced anxiety in cancer patients, and another 2009 study from Temple University found that music reduced stress in heart disease patients.

Although music certainly isn’t a cure-all for stress or anxiety disorders, it can be a valuable way to combat daily stress.


Music and emotions

According to researchers, there are several ways we listen to music in order to better manage our emotions:

  • Entertainment – listening to music to maintain a positive mood or to evoke positive emotions.
  • Revival – listening to music to relax or get energized.
  • Diversion – listening to music to forget about something undesirable.
  • Discharge – listening to music to release an emotion, such as anger.
  • Strong Sensation – listening to music to stimulate our senses in new ways.
  • Mental work – listening to music to get inspired or get new ideas.
  • Solace – listening to music to experience comfort after an unfortunate event.

These are all examples of the different ways we may listen to music in order to regulate our emotions and channel them in positive ways.

In another 2012 study from the University of Gothenberg, researchers studied self-reported episodes by over 200 participants. Out of the 2,297 reported episodes, roughly 30% of them were music-related. In fact, listening to music was one of the most frequently reported main activities along with “eating” and “other activity.” And of the music-related experiences, up to 67% of individuals reported that listening to music had changed their emotions. The majority of these emotions were reported to change in positive ways.

The researchers found that this effect was strongest when people chose to listen to their own preferred music style, rather than having to listen to music chosen by someone else.

However, it’s also important to keep in mind that some people may choose different types of music depending on what they want the music to do for them. In a 2004 study done by North, Tarrant, and Hargreaves, they found that individuals who listened to uplifting music while working out (the researchers used Top 20 Hits from artists like Madonna, Cher, The Corrs, and Blink 182) were more likely to push themselves at the gym when compared to people who listened to dissonant music (avant-garde composers like Dennis Smalley, James Dashow, and Stephen Kaske).

These findings ring true for me because although I like a lot of experimental and dissonant music, the music that works best for me at the gym is usually more upbeat, rhythmic, and inspiring.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that some types of music are healthier to listen to over others. Perhaps different types of music are better for different functions. If you want to relax, maybe you’ll listen to a soothing classical composition. If you want to get pumped before a sports competition, maybe it’s better to listen to some fast techno or hip-hop. If you want to vent some anger, maybe you’ll listen to some heavy rock or metal.

Similarly, other studies have shown that when we focus on a very cognitive-demanding task (like reading, writing, or math) it’s better to listen to instrumental music instead of music with vocals and lyrics. This is because the verbal component of music with vocals often catches our attention and minimizes resources we need to achieve the task we are doing. This is probably why I can only listen to instrumental rock or classical music when I’m writing.



Music and health

Research suggests that there is a strong relationship between stress and physical symptoms, such as a weakened immune system and a greater susceptibility to viruses and illness. This is because stress can be very taxing on our bodies’ energy and resources.

Due to this, psychologist Barbara Fredrickson from the University of North Carolina believes that using music to minimize stress can have benefits to both our mental and physical well-being.

One study in 2010 by Hanser found that soothing music can help activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system). This leads to decreases in blood pressure and heart rate while enhancing blood flow to vital organs. Other studies have shown that pleasant music can also help in reducing physical sensations of pain and discomfort.

In short, music can be a great way to help relax our bodies and put them in a more restful and rejuvenating state.


Daily music listening

Here are some suggestions of ways we can use music to improve our psychology and well-being (as well as some personal recommendations):

These are just some suggestions on the different ways you can use music throughout your daily life. Some of my recommendations may not suit you, but you should get the general idea of what I’m going for in each category.

If you don’t already, practice integrating music more into your day and see how much it enhances various aspects of your life and well-being.


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The Science of Self Improvement

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