Can Listening to Music Help Us Cope with Negative Emotions?

A fascinating new study from Aalto University in Finland sheds light on our musical habits.


Does listening to Elliott Smith when you’re feeling down make you feel better or worse? The answer may depend on your gender. Scientists at Aalto University in Finland monitored brain activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), an area of the brain associated with emotional regulation. They found that when women listened to music to distract from negative feelings, there was an increase in activity in the mPFC. For men who were listening to the music to help them express their negative feelings, there was a decrease in activity in the mPFC.

The study, which was published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, found that using music as a way of expressing negative emotion led to an increase in anxiety and neuroticism in both genders (although more predominantly in men). As someone who sets a soundtrack to match every mood, spending solid amounts of time curating the perfect playlist, I find it somewhat disheartening that my “sad” playlists are increasing my neuroticism. The scientists were interested in finding out whether ruminating with repetitive thoughts was similar to ruminating with music. Based on my own self-observations, I can see truth in their discovery — if I’m letting Lana Del Rey, Philip Glass, or The Tallest Man on Earth reflect my emotions back to me, aren’t they just confirming those emotions? And doesn’t that confirmation lead to increasing the rumination? However, if I use music as a distraction, to say, “I hear you, but let’s think about something else right now,” and blast The Kinks or Diana Ross, then the act of distracting will stop the cycle of repetitive thoughts.

[W]hen women listened to music to distract from negative feelings, there was an increase in activity in the mPFC. For men who were listening to the music to help them express their negative feelings, there was a decrease in activity in the mPFC.

That’s my experience as a female, and it’s interesting to me that men are made even more anxious and neurotic by using music to express their negative emotions. The study doesn’t offer an answer as to why that is, although it’s probably a good thing Woody Allen is so into George Gershwin (if he listened to more aggressive music, I’m guessing he would become so neurotic he would just implode).

"These results show a link between music-listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain," said Elvira Brattico, senior author of the study. That’s an encouraging discovery, because if we know in what ways music affects our brains and emotions, then we can change our music-listening styles to become healthier. For example, I know that distracting myself can help me stop ruminating — and as the saying goes, neurons that fire together wire together; thus changing that kind of habit can eventually change your brain.

That is in line with the Dialectical Behavioral Therapy developed by Marsha Linehan, a form of therapy that helps with distress tolerance and emotional regulation. DBT was designed to help individuals who have difficulty handling their intense feelings, and offers as a tool ways to distract oneself from unhealthy habits of thinking. This new research can and should be implemented by music therapists and DBT therapists alike, as we better understand how music affects our emotions and mental health.

I previously wrote about the evolutionary aspect of music, and how it can help us act more altruistically. Perhaps as more studies are done on music, behavior, and emotion, we can use its mysterious power to better ourselves and our world. That strikes a chord with me, and I feel fine.

For more insight into the musical moods of Johann Sebastian Bach, the most robust of classical musicians, here's English conductor Sir John Eliot Gardiner:

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Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations. 

SCREAM PHOTO CREDIT: Universal History Archive/Universal Image Group

HEADPHONES PHOTO CREDIT: Future Music Magazine/Future

COLLAGE: Lori Chandler

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