By Angela Borders
January 29, 2019
How Music Affects Mood, and How to Use That to Your Advantage
After Professor Brad Buchanan wrote about how EMDR music helped him write about remission and process difficult trauma, we got thinking about how powerful music can be. More importantly, it got us wondering if people use music actively in a conscious way to help themselves. Most people are probably aware that music can affect their mood, but many may not harness that power in a mindful way. This post seeks to help people do just that, as well as to discuss other ways music can be a useful tool psychologically and offer some samples of music that may be helpful.
Of course, it goes without saying that musical taste, just like any taste, is a deeply personal and individual thing, and what may help one person calm down and relax could be unsettling for another person. So of course, take our suggestions with a big pinch of salt, and trust yourself and your tastes over our suggestions! Also, it’s worth noting that while we are offering some ideas on how music can be used to help with difficult emotions or to affect mood, this post is of course no substitute for actual therapy or other mental health care.
Personal Connections, Music as a Trigger for Memory
There are all kinds of very interesting studies about how music can help trigger memories, help with memory retention/studying, and some really fascinating stuff about how it can be especially helpful for people struggling with memory problems such as Alzheimer’s and/or dementia. Songs we heard during certain times in our lives carry associations of those times with them, and we can use this to help us. There’s even some interesting research that says music we hear from the ages of 12 and 22 cement our preferences and have the highest impact on us, generally speaking. Listening to music from that time frame can be very powerful.
Knowing all this, we can use that to our advantage! If there are certain memories we would like (or NOT like) to revisit, we can actively seek out (or avoid) music from those times. And feelings we have about those times can be powerful. Lets say, for example, you have a super stressful day ahead of you, and you know you want to try and be in the best frame of mind possible. Listening to songs that remind you of good memories could help with that!
A lot of us probably know that music triggers these memories, but, many of us probably let them happen from time to time at random, when a song comes on the radio, or we just happen to think of it. Instead, especially if we are struggling with something difficult, we could seek to use these triggers to our advantage, and that’s just what we recommend.
Some Specific Suggestions for Using Music to Trigger Memory
- Start by thinking of the time frame/memories you want to revisit. Whether it’s because it was a painful experience or positive one, imagining that time—what you saw, who you were with, where you were, and what music you were listening to—will help to open up those feelings you are seeking to use.
- Make a list. Songs, artist, styles of music—whatever details are notable to you to organize what type of music you should be looking for/ what songs to go in search of.
- Make a playlist; name it something clear. Something like “play list one” could get you into trouble if you accidentally play the wrong list and end up triggering totally different feelings than you were looking to. Something more like “high school good times” or “grief songs” would be clearer.
- MOST IMPORTANTLY, make sure you have the time and space to go through the emotions that may come up from listening to this playlist. Just popping in a CD as you are driving off to work on your way to a high stakes meeting is not a great idea if the music is such that it will evoke deep sorrow or awake memories of trauma.
Again, these suggestions are no substitute for working through difficult memories with a therapist! However, lets take a look at an example of how this can be used with positive memories. Just the other day, a song came on the radio that we hadn’t heard in years. Objectively, it isn’t the greatest song (I won’t name it here in case there are any big fans of the band), but it is a song from when Joe and I’s relationship was young, our high school days. The instant it came on the radio, we started to sing along, were giggling, and were delighted when our son quickly picked up part of the chorus and started singing too. Later, Joe made a play list on Pandora that had this song, as well as others from that time, in it. Now, whenever I’m feeling like I need a pick me up, I’ll turn on that station. Listening to it is certainly not a cure all for any and all anxieties or sadness, but it is helpful!
There are lots and lots of songs from various times and events in our lives that we have positive and negative associations with. Use that to your advantage, and listen to music that makes you feel how you want to feel and revisit memories you want to revisit.
Music and Mood
Now lets talk about how music can affect mood, besides just by triggering memories. There are also ways that, generally speaking, music can affect mood in somewhat predictable, usable ways, just because of the varying styles, tones, and etc. For example, soft, soothing, mellow music usually has a calming effect on people, whereas high tempo, intense, swelling music usually has more of an activating and energizing (or for some, anxiety producing) affect. Knowing what kind of music has what kind of effect on you is tremendously helpful! Once you know this, you can intentionally choose music to help shape your mood.
Below is a list of types of music that, just by their style and patterns, tend to produce the moods listed. Of course it’s subjective, but we hope it’s still helpful!
Music that Calms/Relaxes
Music that has a mellow, slow tempo, almost droning like quality, can be deeply relaxing and calming. Below are a few examples of music that many find calming and soothing.
In Brad Buchanan’s Recent Post, he specifically talked about EMDR or Bilateral Stimulation Music. We linked to some examples in that post that he named, and share them here as well.
Music for Concentration
Music that has steady, slow tempo and patterns tend to help many people concentrate. The following songs are very similar in style to the previous list, but are not as soothing and calming—they don’t evoke feelings of sleep or relaxation, more just those of focus. They tend to have more energy and a building up sort of quality than those made with more of a relaxation focus.
Video Game Sound Tracks
This may be unusual for some, but as avid gamers, we love listening to video game soundtracks, and many games have positively beautiful music to listen to. Also, maybe because these games are built around solving puzzles and working through problems, many of the tracks have all the qualities of relaxing, focusing music that we love for activities like writing or working on our website. Two games in particular we’ve used repeatedly for calm background music are
Music for Grief
Music with notes in minor keys, slower drawn out patterns and slow tempos, can help people feel deeply and process difficult emotions of pain, loss, and grief.
Since I mentioned we love to listen to video game soundtracks, it’s probably no surprise that we love movie soundtracks too. Any film that has personal significance could be great to listen to for all sorts of reasons, but I think when it comes to processing difficult emotions it can be especially helpful.
One of my all time favorite movies happens to deal with the themes of grief, loss, and love, and has one of the most moving soundtracks I’ve ever heard. I. Love. This. Movie. The main musical theme is really beautiful and touches on a lot of different feelings, but I think its building intensity and bittersweet notes in minor key are especially helpful with going through painful memories/feelings
Music that is Joyful
Music with happy, bubbly, pop music sounds and uptempo beats make us feel good and evoke a sense of joy.
Music for Empowerment/Motivation
Music with rising patterns, uptempo beats, and powerful lyrics/instrumental patterns, and swelling with emotion can evoke a strong sense of empowerment and self motivation. These sorts of songs tend to have faster/building tempo and increase in intensity periodically to build momentum.
Do What Works for You
So, as I’ve said throughout, all of this is super subjective. For example, I’ve heard people say that heavy metal music can be relaxing (and there’s actually some science behind this!), though that certainly is not the case for myself. I hope the links and suggestions above are helpful, but if you only take away one thing from all this, it should be that sometimes people have more ability to shape their mood than they realize, and music is one tool that is worth trying. It’s certainly no replacement for things like mental health care, or solving the complex problems we face, but it is worth giving a try. If you just let whatever random music happens to be on the radio shape your mood on a daily basis, consider taking charge a bit more and intentionally helping to set the tone for your mood by choosing music that activates you in the ways you want.