Music is a really good tool to induce emotion and engage a better mood


Your heart beats faster, your palms sweat and part of your brain called the Heschl’s gyrus lights up like a Christmas tree. Chances are, you’ve never thought in such a detailed way about what happens to your brain and body when you listen to music.

But it’s a question that has puzzled scientists for decades: Why does something as abstract as music provoke such a consistent response?

In a new study, a team of researchers from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and USC Viterbi School of Engineering, with the help of artificial intelligence, investigated how music affects listeners’ brains, bodies and emotions.

For the experiment, the team selected three emotional pieces of music that did not contain lyrics and were not highly familiar, so no element of memory was attached to the listeners’ emotional response. (Having previously heard a song during a wisdom tooth extraction, for instance, might skew your current perception of that song.)

In the neuroimaging experiment, 40 volunteers listened to a series of sad or happy musical excerpts while their brains were scanned using MRI. This was conducted at USC Dornsife’s Brain and Creativity Institute by Assistant Professor of Psychology Assal Habibi and her team, including former USC Dornsife Ph.D. student Matthew Sachs, now a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University in New York City.

To measure physical reaction, 60 people listened to music on headphones, while their heart activity and skin conductance were measured. The same group also rated the intensity of emotion (happy or sad) from one to 10 while listening to the music.

Why Music Makes Us Feel (According to AI). Credit: USC Viterbi on Vimeo.
Then the computer scientists crunched the data using artificial intelligence algorithms to determine which auditory features people responded to consistently.

In the past, neuroscientists trying to better understand the impact of music on the body, brain and emotions have analyzed MRI brain scans over very short segments of time—for instance, looking at the brain reacting to two seconds of music.

By contrast, in this study, using algorithms to analyze data gathered in the lab, the scientists were able to look at how people felt while listening to music over longer periods of time, not only from brain scans, but also using data from other modes.

In addition to helping researchers identify songs for the perfect workout, study or sleep playlist, the research has therapeutic applications—music has been shown to calm anxiety, ease pain and help people with disabilities or dementia.

“From a therapy perspective, music is a really good tool to induce emotion and engage a better mood,” said Habibi.

“Using this research, we can design musical stimuli for therapy in depression and other mood disorders. It also helps us understand how emotions are processed in the brain.”

Depression is responsible for the deaths of many people globally each year, with suicide being the leading cause of death around the world in 15–29 year-olds (WHO, 2017). Many more young people experience depression at highly debilitating levels, around 8% in Australia meeting the DSM criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) (Lawrence et al., 2015), and 13% in the United States (National Institute of Mental Health, 2017).

The early onset of depression is a critical factor in terms of projected quality of life (Sullivan et al., 2012), and if left untreated, depression can become a lifelong disability (Meade and Dowsell, 2016). Depression also has an impact on the social and intellectual development of young people as well as reducing engagement with education at a crucial developmental stage. It is therefore imperative to address depression in young people before its impact on their lives increases.

Depression and Media Use

Access to online media has increased exponentially with the onset of digitisation and technological advancement (Brown and Bobkowski, 2011). Research has demonstrated that young people are even more likely to turn to media when they are in a negative mood (Dillman Carpentier et al., 2008). In fact, withdrawal from socialization and normal daily activity has been identified as a behavior consistent with clinical depression and this often involves an increase in general media use (O’Keeffe and Clarke-Pearson, 2011). This increased engagement with media includes music listening, with emotional dependency on music also tending to increase during periods of depression (McFerran, 2016).

However, research has demonstrated that this increased reliance on music during episodes of psychological distress does not always have positive mental health outcomes for the young people involved. For example, Garrido and Schubert (2015a,b) have demonstrated that people with a ruminative coping style, which is highly predictive of clinical depression, tend to be attracted to music that can intensify symptoms of depression. Similarly, in a study by McFerran et al. (2015) the authors discovered that having high levels of distress while listening to music was associated with more intense, negative moods afterward.

Other studies confirm the fact that people with depression are not always able to effectively select music that helps them to feel better (Wilhelm et al., 2013Hense et al., 2014). They may also use music as part of generally unhealthy coping strategies such as emotion-focused coping (Miranda et al., 2012), rumination (Garrido and Schubert, 2013), or social withdrawal (McFerran and Saarikallio, 2014).

Self-Awareness and Depression

Self-awareness can be described as clear awareness of one’s own feelings, emotions, and behaviors (Blakemore and Frith, 2003). Such awareness is generally regarded as an adaptive function that can result in identification of aspects of the self that would benefit from modification. Experiencing feelings of sadness can often provide the motivation for self-scrutiny and behavioral modification, even increasing detail oriented thinking and realistic thinking that is useful for problem solving behaviors (Keedwell, 2008). However, in depression, the adaptive function of sadness tends to malfunction, with depression being associated with increased pessimism and reduced motivation to engage in problem solving (Bianco et al., 2013).

In general, individuals differ as to their levels of cognitive insight, or their capacity to understand their own thoughts, behaviors and affective states (Riggs et al., 2012). However, research has demonstrated that low emotional awareness is highly predictive of depression and anxiety in young people (Kranzler et al., 2016). Emotional awareness, or the ability to identify emotional experiences, can be a protective factor against psychopathology by allowing an individual to recognize the need to activate appropriate emotion regulation strategies (Barrett et al., 2001). On the other hand, young people with low emotional awareness tend to have reduced access to effective strategies for coping with negative affect and interpersonal difficulties (Flynn and Rudolph, 2014).

This lack of awareness may also play into music listening choices in young people with depression. This is implied by one study conducted by Garrido and Schubert (2015b) in which participants with high levels of rumination reported having benefited from listening to sad music while at the same time reporting an increase in depressive symptoms. Similarly, in a study on listening to nostalgic music, Garrido (2018) found that implicit mood measures (in which participants are unaware that their mood is being assessed) indicated a much higher level of negative mood responses after listening to nostalgic music than participants reported in response to direct questioning.

The issue of the discrepancy between perceived and real mood changes was also discussed by McFerran et al. (2016) in a systematic review of 33 articles about music and mental health. Their review revealed that while direct questioning usually suggested positive mood effects from listening to music, non-direct mood indicators suggested results were not always so positive.

At times this appeared to be because researchers worded questions in such a way as to suggest positive effects. In other cases study participants demonstrated a tendency to construe music listening positively regardless of its effect on their mood. This reveals issues both with demand characteristics in study design as well as a degree of positive bias in participants.

In exploring the concept of awareness further, McFerran and Saarikallio (2014) identified three different response styles with regards to music choices. They found that some people can recognize that the music they listen to is not beneficial to their mood and then be proactive in changing their listening habits. The second response style is when a person can be made aware of deteriorations in their mood by others and change their habits. This has been shown to be possible, for example, with young people who are seeking help for depression and who work with a music therapist to identify more helpful ways of listening to their preferred music (McFerran et al., 2018).

The third response style is when a person may either recognize or be made aware of the negative impact but is not inclined to modify their listening behaviors. Alternatively, if an individual’s mental health is very poor, they may not be able to focus on therapeutic interventions that demand high cognitive function such as this level of meta-reflection on intentional music listening (Hense et al., 2018).

Thus, it appears that there is a need to develop nuanced strategies for increasing awareness of the effect that music listening can have on young people’s mood and wellbeing. Given the central role that music plays in the lives of young people, increasing such awareness has the potential for positive benefits through increased understanding of adaptive and maladaptive behaviors more generally. There is a need to further understand how young people are enabled to increase their awareness about the effects of music on their wellbeing.

The current study uses a grounded theory approach to explore the following research question through interviews with seven young people: To what degree are young people with symptoms of depression aware of the effect their music-listening has on mood and wellbeing, and how do they reach a state of awareness?


This study focused on exploring the degree to which young people with symptoms of depression are aware of the effect their music listening choices have on mood and wellbeing, and how they reach that state of awareness. Our findings demonstrated that most young people in our study reported past behaviors reflecting limited awareness and unconscious motivations, often with undesirable outcomes. However, intervening conditions including insights gained from friends, family, a therapist or through self-reflection, resulted in some increased awareness. Previous research has demonstrated that increased awareness of the effect of music listening choices can be deliberately influenced, such as through use of the Healthy-Unhealthy Music Scale as an awareness raising tool (Saarikallio et al., 2015McFerran et al., 2018).

However, in the current study, some young people demonstrated an initial resistance to increased awareness, or a reversion to previous unhelpful patterns of music listening even after reaching a level of awareness, particularly during depressive episodes. Thus, the pathways young people took through music listening and awareness of the effects of their music listening choices were not always linear.

Skill building appeared to be a gradual process of discovery by continual cycling through varying intentions, strategies and outcomes, with new levels of consciousness being reached as new events and experiences challenged old behaviors.

Of note in the current study was that some participants described being more able to use music to change states such as anxiety or anger even when these were quite severe, but were less inclined to use this strategy when feeling depressed. When seeking to change an anxious mood, for example, participants reported listening to calming music – music that did not match their current mood. In contrast, when dealing with depression, many of the participants reported using music that maintained their current mood in order to feel validated and to have their feelings acknowledged.

While the intention of participants was to use music to help them cope with their depressed mood, this sometimes resulted in intensifying the state. It may be that the different interactional strategies used in each case contributed to the differing outcomes since research suggests that listening to mood shifting music is often more effective than listening to sad music when feeling depressed (Garrido and Schubert, 2015b). Alternately, it may be that anxiety is more amenable to influence by music listening. In a systematic review of studies relating to music and people with dementia, for example, it was found that music can reliably reduce agitation in patients, while the effects of music on symptoms of depression are less consistent (Garrido et al., 2018).

Anxiety is often exacerbated by a fear of the symptoms of anxiety themselves (Dugas et al., 2012), but calming music can reduce physiological symptoms of anxiety thereby inducing a relaxation response (Hamel, 2001). On the other hand, depression is often closely related to thought patterns which may be less likely to be altered when listening to music, particularly if the music echoes the existing negative thoughts.

It may be this relationship between thought patterns and depression that can help explain why the benefits of listening to distracting music was sometimes time-limited, ceasing as soon as the song was over. This has further been noted in Cheong-Clinch’s study of adolescents with mental illness (Cheong-Clinch and McFerran, 2016), where music was found to mediate mood momentarily, but it was more difficult for young people to achieve sustained benefits. As reflected in our findings, the content of the lyrics often had an influence on whether positive benefits were achieved. When participants listened to music that mirrored their current circumstances this appeared to have less desirable mood outcomes, possibly because listening to such music is akin to ruminating. In contrast, outcomes were more positive for participants in the current study when they listened to music with optimistic messages.

Previous research has similarly demonstrated that the thoughts triggered by music have a greater impact on mood outcomes than features of the music itself (Garrido et al., 2016). Thus, listening to music that is distracting as opposed to music that alters mood via shifting thought patterns, may be only of temporary benefit.

Nevertheless it is important not to ignore momentary benefits for people struggling with depression. Some theorists suggest that the cumulative benefits of positive moments can serve as protective factors that eventually lead to improved wellbeing (Rutter, 2012). More pragmatically, young people who are struggling with suicidal thoughts appreciate even small periods of escape (Cheong-Clinch and McFerran, 2016). Such brief distractions are helpful in that they reduce time spent ruminating and can reduce the incidence of self-harm and suicide attempts (Polanco-Roman et al., 2015).

Furthermore, studies in music therapy have indicated that selecting music that matches one’s mood as the beginning point of a process that gradually shifts toward more positive music – a strategy known as the iso-principle – can produce a more enduring repair of mood (Davis et al., 2008).

The participants in the current study did report experiencing some lessening of the intensity of their negative moods after listening to mood-matching music. It is possible that for some, the reduced intensity of their negative moods was the beginning of a process of recovery. However, the data in this study did not reveal this clearly, and it is likely that the long-term outcomes of this process differ from individual to individual particularly in situations where the person has a high level of unawareness about the thinking patterns and emotions being triggered by the music.

Clinical Implications

While some participants in this study described reaching awareness of their strategies for music use on their own, external input such as from friends, family or a therapist was also described and has been categorized as intervening conditions in Figure 2. Although this may suggest that telling young people to be more careful about their music listening could be beneficial, a broader cultural context is also at play. Young people report feeling resentful of the judgments made about their music choices, and one function of music is often described as being to assert an independent identity, beyond parental authority (Laiho, 2004). In a previous study, we were able to encourage young people seeking support for depression to contemplate their music listening habits, but this occurred within a respectful conversation that involved both validating music preferences as well as dialoguing about consequences (McFerran et al., 2018).

It is also common for caring adults to mistake the mechanism of action in this scenario and to blame the qualities of the music itself, rather than focusing on how music choices reflect mental health. This has historically been a point of contention between fans of heavier genres, such as Rock and Rap, and correlations are frequently found with antisocial behaviors (Lozon and Bensimon, 2014).

Nevertheless, a causal relationship between particular music genres and mental illness or problem behaviors has never been established (North and Hargreaves, 2006). Rather, complex interactions between an array of personal and social mechanisms underlie our emotional reactions to music (Juslin et al., 2015). Interventions that focus on self-reflection and raising awareness of the interaction between thoughts and feelings triggered by our music listening choices are likely to be more successful than those targeting particular music genres or styles.


There is ample evidence to demonstrate that people use music to improve their mood on a daily basis, both in everyday life (DeNora, 2000Saarikallio, 2007McFerran et al., 2015Papinczak et al., 2015) and in music therapy (Maratos et al., 2009Cheong-Clinch, 2013Bibb and Skwews McFerran, 2018). There is also an emerging body of research which seeks to qualify these findings, since it is clear that music is not a magic pill that can immediately resolve a negative mood and nor is it always helpful.

This research contributes to this second discourse, highlighting how individual’s uses of music can result in various outcomes depending on a range of factors. Individuals can use music listening to improve, maintain or intensify a mood, and may do any of these things at various times. Although it appears that people with depression are most likely to use music to intensify a negative mood, they are also the least aware of this tendency. This is further complicated by the finding that an individual can become aware of unhelpful listening habits, but can lose that awareness when in a depressive state and revert to intensifying strategies.

The current study is limited by the fact that the sample was primarily female. This gender imbalance is not unusual in studies relating to mental health (see for e.g., Lindner et al., 2016), and is likely a reflection of the higher rates of depression among females (Freeman and Freeman, 2013). Nevertheless, future studies could benefit from recruitment of a more balanced sample so as to explore gender differences in strategy selection and outcomes of music use. Future research should also consider the influence of cultural context.

The current study included at least one participant from a non-English speaking background. While music tastes among young people are becoming increasingly globalized (Cicchelli and Octobre, 2017), culture nevertheless has an impact not only on music selections, but on the way individuals value particular emotional experiences (Oishi et al., 2007).

Using music to influence mood is likely to continue to be a popular strategy for many people, both in their everyday life and through music therapy or other therapeutic contexts. Therefore, our ability to predict when this is likely to be more or less helpful and to develop strategies for supporting people during the most difficult moods is critical. However, the nuances of the pathways through music listening and toward an improved mood are complex and need to be individually identified and negotiated. The findings from this research indicate that promoting awareness of the power of music to enhance any mood is helpful, but that we should be prepared for circuitous pathways and open to change in all directions when people engage with their preferred music.

More information: Timothy Greer et al. A Multimodal View into Music’s Effect on Human Neural, Physiological, and Emotional Experience, Proceedings of the 27th ACM International Conference on Multimedia – MM ’19 (2019). DOI: 10.1145/3343031.3350867

Provided by University of Southern California


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