Using Music to Influence Mood
Have you ever found yourself listening to music to influence your emotion? Whether it was to augment what you were already feeling or to change what you were feeling, I believe we’ve all had experience with turning to music as a way to cope with or express emotion. I have found this to be especially true with teenagers, where music is a core part of their identity. In many of my client’s own words, “my music says and expresses things about myself that I didn’t even know.” I love that!
So how do you choose your music? There are infinite types of music out there, with a huge array of style, harmony, rhythm, emotional expression, etc. As I work with teens and hear the songs they bring in to express their emotions I am constantly amazed at the huge variety of music I hear. The beautiful thing about this is that it affords so many options for us as we seek out what we particularly enjoy. Many of us gravitate to certain artists when we’re in certain moods, and sometimes we have to do some searching to find the “right song”. Why is that? What is it about music that makes us not only seek it out, but we seek a specific genre or even a particular song to support or match our emotional state?
Although there are many factors involved (familiarity, activation of emotion and memory centers in the brain, physiological response, etc.) I have chosen to focus on psychophysiological responses for this post. Generally speaking, listening to music with strong rhythms will cause your autonomic system to speed up (increased blood flow, heart rate, and breathing rate) and when you listen to slower music it tends to slows down. You are probably intuitively aware of this as you use upbeat music for dancing and active moments and slower music during calm times (such as yoga or relaxation). A recent study by Zwagg et all (2011) showed that an increase in tempo led to an “increase in reported arousal and tension and a decrease in heart rate variability.” Basically this mean that they saw physiological signs of arousal and tension (such as muscle response, breathing rate, etc.) with faster tempo, which supports the idea of music influencing our physiological states on an unconscious and almost involuntary level.
They also found that songs in minor modes created more arousal than songs in major modes, which I find particularly interesting as it correlates directly with my own experience. I personally don’t enjoy popular songs in minor modes as much as those in major, and when I sit down to write a song and use minor chords, they don’t jive with me as well as major chords. This is true unless I am already in a state of “arousal” (feeling sad, angry, etc.). On the other hand, I know of many other musicians who actually feel more comfortable in minor modes and use them frequently. This finding of minor modes creating more arousal helps me make sense of why I don’t particularly enjoy using these modes for myself when I am in a comfortable and centered emotional place and do not wish to be “aroused” to something that does not match my current state. So interesting.
The Zwagg study went on to say that tempo, mode, and percussiveness do indeed modulate our emotions and can actually be used to direct emotions. Cool right? The trick is figuring out what works for you as far as finding the music to modulate (change) and direct your emotion. The mistake that some people make is thinking that you can change someone’s emotion by immediately playing the type of music for where you “think” they should be. If someone is angry play Enya and they’ll feel better. If someone is depressed just play them a happy song and everything will be alright. Not true.
The reason it isn’t so cut and dry is because of what music therapists call the “iso principle”. The basic idea of this foundation of music therapy is that you need to meet a client at their current emotional state, not where you “want them to be”. Bringing in music that is so drastically different from a current emotional state (or even from their typical preferences) could have adverse consequences such as increasing the intensity of the original emotion or causing unwanted tension and arousal. For example, if someone is very angry or anxious, suddenly playing “calm” music may make them more angry because it simply does not validate their emotion. If someone is depressed, playing happy music may simply cause tension and discomfort and perpetuate their emotional state. They need an opportunity to express the existing emotion first and work through it in a constructive way.
If you listen to something fast and loud when you feel angry it may be a more accurate reflection of your emotional and physiological processes and will help you find an appropriate starting point for regulating your emotion. What you need to be aware of is that listening only to that strong or depressive music may perpetuate and deepen your experience, and over time the music might cause the emotion to be more intense than it would have been otherwise. The goal is to find a way to move and progress through those emotions, using music, in a way that will help you to come to a more neutral and centered state.
The Iso Principle Playlist
I did the following “assignment” with a recent adolescent music therapy group focused on Mood and Coping Skills. Those girls LOVE their music, so we found a way to use it to help them with their own emotional regulation and develop a concrete coping skill. Here’s what I presented:
Exercise: Choose an emotional state. This can be one that you experience regularly, or one that tends to be overwhelming when it comes. Examples include angry, depressed, stressed, anxious, lost, etc.
Choose a song that you would like to listen to when you are in that emotional state. Don’t hold back, it can be whatever will validate your emotion in the moment.
Once you’ve matched your mood with the first song, think of another song that you could listen to afterward to begin to change or regulate your emotion. Here is an outline of our playlist progression:
- First song: Very Angry/Anxious/Depressed
- Second song: Somewhat angry/anxious/depressed
- Third song: Minimally angry/anxious/depressed, starting to calm down
- Fourth song: Feeling emotionally centered and calm
Several girls came up with multiple songs for each phase, which is totally fine. There will be times when it takes longer to work through the existing emotional state, and having more resources is nothing but beneficial. I also mention that the girls can listen to the same song several times if they are not ready to “move on” yet. But the intent of this playlist is to help them move from an intense emotional state to a state of calmness and feeling centered.
Music is a very powerful tool for expressing and experiencing emotion, and learning how to use it functionally as a coping skill is an important part of music therapy treatment. I do need to note here, however, that just because you are using music to influence your mood does not suddenly mean that you are a music therapist, it simply means that you understand how music affects you and that you are using it functionally for your own (or someone else’s experience). A music therapist has extensive training in these areas and in how to use them toward functional outcomes.
I encourage you to seek out the research in this area as there is an incredible amount out there. I find it fascinating to learn of all the different ways that we are influenced by music, and to see some of the reasons why this is the case. Music is a powerful tool!
Zwagg, M.D., Westerink, J.H.D.M., & van den Brock, E.L. (2011). Emotional and psychophysiological responses to tempo, mode, and percussiveness. Music Scientiae, 15(2), 250-269