“Help! I need somebody. Help!”
The Beatles blasted out that well-known tune in 1965.
Whether you prefer pop, heavy metal, or hip-hop, the songs you choose may provide a glimpse into the state of your mental health.
They may also have long-lasting effects on your mood.
Can sad songs cheer you up? Do aggressive songs put you on edge? That depends on which expert you are tuning in to.
One recent study suggests that people who often listen to sad or aggressive music may experience higher anxiety or neuroticism.
Researchers at the Aarhus University in Denmark and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyväskylä, Aalto University in Finland analyzed the neural activity of participants while they listened to music with happy, sad, or fearful undertones.
The researchers focused on markers of depression, anxiety, and neuroticism.
Researchers concluded that while sad or aggressive music may help some people express negative feelings, it doesn’t necessarily improve their mood.
“The intention behind why you’re listening to music is key,” said certified neurologic music therapist Jay Anderson from Palm Desert, California. “If someone is feeling amped up and needs to listen to music that releases adrenaline, gets them in the fight or flight mode, and releases the calming effects afterward, they may listen to angry music and feel better.”
“However, other people may have no intention at all and may just listen to this kind of music because it’s a cultural norm or it helps with their identity,” he told Healthline.
A Calming Effect?
Contrary to the Finnish study, researchers at Australia’s University of Queensland found that extreme music, including heavy metal, emo, punk, and screamo, caused an increase in positive emotions for angry participants and actually calmed them.
Thirty-nine participants who frequently listen to extreme music had their emotions and heart rates monitored as they described a frustrating situation, relating to a relationship, finances, or work.
Then some participants sat in silence for 10 minutes while others listened to their choice of song.
Researchers found that those who listened to extreme music became calmer rather than angrier.
“The study was the first to directly test the proposed relationship between anger and extreme music by recruiting extreme music fans, manipulating their anger levels, and allowing them to listen to music or a no music control,” study author Genevieve Dingle, Ph.D., told Healthline.
“The findings show that listening to extreme music when angry did not make these participants angrier,” she added. “It calmed them down and heart rates remained stable throughout the music listening period.”
Only for the Moment?
Music may also have an impact on the brain and emotions in the long run because it involves many parts of the brain, explains Dingle.
“I have seen some laboratory music research that shows you need to keep playing the music to participants in order to keep the emotional effects throughout an experiment,” she said. “In everyday life, however, people hold emotional memories associated with particular songs or types of music over their whole lives. Brain imaging studies show that listening to your favorite music activates the dopaminergic ‘reward’ system in the brain in the same way that eating, sex, and taking recreational drugs might do.”
Anderson agrees. He points out that people most often listen to the music that they listened to when they were between the ages of 16 and 26.
“Many of my patients like heavy metal or rap. That’s what they grew up with. So I’ve become familiar with it and see how the drum beats are energetic and the lyrics tell a social story of anger or rebellion, that can be inherent when we grow up,” he said.
Anderson adds that both heavy metal and rap are primal in nature, featuring a heavy beat and pulse.
“You can feel this type of music in your bones. Literally your backbone is right next to your skin so it can create a jolt through your body, which then affects your brain and quickens or slows your pulse, depending on the beat,” he explained.
For people with mental health issues, Anderson says the type of music they listen to is especially important.
He works in a forensic psychiatric hospital, where he deals with people with anxiety, depression, anger, and mental illness.
“I’ve had people who are depressed and suicidal tell me that they listen to the same music they always have, like Slayer, because it relaxes them,” Anderson said. “Then I’ll point out that the particular song they may be listening to is about suicide, and ask them to consider other options.”
Using Music as Therapy
Music therapy is the intentional use or strategy of using music to achieve positive effects in everyday life.
Anderson has his clients participate in lyric analysis. They’ll choose different songs they like and he’ll print out the lyrics.
“We’ll examine the songs one by one. I’ll ask them things like how the song made them feel,” he said. “If a person is actually able to verbalize what it is that they get out of the music and what it is really doing for them, that’s when it does the most for them.”
He says music can be effective for people with high anxiety or violent tendencies.
“Right now I have one of my clients listen to five minutes of calming music when he feels the need to ask for his as-needed medication he takes to help with violence and anxiety,” Anderson said.
While Anderson’s approach may work for people with existing conditions, Dingle says it’s unlikely that listening to music causes conditions such as depression, anxiety, or neuroticism.
“Some research indicates that people who already experience symptoms of depression and are prone to rumination may listen to music in a way that prolongs their negative mood,” she said. “Other research indicates that people select music that reflects and helps to process their existing negative mood states in a way that is helpful to them.”
Music to Your Ears?
If you want to tune in to music that will help your mood, Anderson says start by listening to different types of music you wouldn’t normally choose to explore how they affect your mood and make you feel.
“I’d liken it to a book. If you’re listening to the same music over and over, it’s like reading the same book over and over,” he said. “It’s good to have a variety of music to help you feel expressions deeper.”
Plus, there are few blanket rules when it comes to music and emotions, notes Dingle.
“Some people respond positively to specific types of music that make other people run away screaming,” she said. “A small proportion of every study sample shows little response to music at all and these individuals may respond more strongly to videos, literature, and other forms of media. The main thing is to be aware of the effect that the music you listen to has on your emotional state and to adjust it accordingly.”