Music is a powerful and supportive tool for emotion regulation


Emotion regulation is an essential aspect of mental health and wellbeing. In fact, past studies have found associations between poor emotion regulation and several psychiatric disorders, including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During their everyday life, humans can regulate their negative emotions in different ways, most of which do not require any conscious cognitive engagement. For instance, they might take a bath, step outside for fresh air or listen to music.

Researchers at Radboud University Nijmegen in The Netherlands, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), and University Hospital Aachen, Germany have recently carried out a study aimed at investigating the effects of a short-term musical training on implicit emotion regulation.

Their paper, published in BMC Neuroscience, specifically examined whether musical training helped people to reduce the negative emotions elicited by unpleasant or disgusting odors.

“At the time of conception, my colleagues and I worked in the same department in Aachen,” Nils Kohn, one of the researchers who carried out the study, told MedicalXpress. “The project was born out of our curiosity for emotions and the power of mood induction that is harbored by music. Mark Berthold-Losleben, being more of a trained musician than myself, was the perfect person to discuss this with.”

Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues decided to investigate whether, in a controlled environment, music could change people’s emotional responses to unpleasant smells. They focused on olfaction because previous studies found that odors can consistently lead to emotional responses.

Their paper draws on previous knowledge about the stability of olfaction and its neuroanatomical connections, which was gathered by their research group in the past. In addition, it builds on Kohn’s theoretical interpretation of how implicit emotion regulation works.

Neuroscientists assess the impact of a short-term musical training on implicit emotion regulation

“In the first draft of our paper, we also wanted to explore implicit emotion regulation among professional musicians and/or composers,” Berthold-Losleben said. “Therefore, we initiated a cooperation with the school for music and dance in Cologne to recruit participants. Unfortunately, most musicians didn’t meet our schedule or the study’s inclusion criteria.

Another problem was that professional musicians, or at least those we tried to recruit, did not like the positive auditory stimuli as much as non-professionals did. We assumed that this was because of their professional and therefore more complex approach to music. Maybe our stimuli were too well-known and boring to them.”

To investigate the effects of musical training on implicit emotion regulation, Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues designed a simple experiment in which they paired negative olfaction (eliciting a negative emotion) with positive music to create four different combinations of stimuli. They then recruited 31 healthy participants to take part in their experiment.

Essentially, participants were either exposed to an odor similar to rotten eggs or to no odors at all. Simultaneously, they either listened to an excerpt of classical music or to a neutral range of tones.

“We then added three weeks of passive listening to classical music as our musical intervention for participants and re-did the test,” Kohn explained. “In the task, subjects had to always rate how disgusting the smell was, how they liked the music and how they felt in general. This was done while the subjects lay in the fMRI scanner.”

Overall, the findings gathered by the researchers suggest that listening to music two times per day for three weeks can reduce negative emotions elicited by a bad odor, particularly if one hears music again. In other words, music could improve wellbeing and help people to regulate negative emotions elicited by an external stimulus.

If they were also applicable to individuals with psychiatric disorders, the findings gathered by this team of researchers could have important implications. For instance, they could highlight the value of musical interventions for increasing stress resilience and helping people with affective disorders to better regulate their emotions.

“Patients suffering from affective disorders like depression often find themselves in an endless circle of sameness,” Berthold-Losleben said. “Once confronted with triggers that lead to negative affect, they react with negative emotions/feelings, negative body experiences and negative thinking. All of that itself can trigger a new negative affect. These patients tend to end up in a negative circle or spiral which it is difficult or impossible to get out of.”

The overreaching goal of the work by Kohn, Berthold-Losleben and their colleagues is to devise simple musical interventions for people with depression or other affective disorders, which are easy to implement and could improve their ability to regulate negative emotions. Firstly, however, they had to gain a better understanding of emotion regulation and of the stimuli that can elicit or reduce negative emotions.

“We are now trying to initiate a collaboration between Radboud University Nijmegen and the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim to continue this line of research, as I’m still very interested in what challenges our abilities to regulate ourselves in our daily life and what can support us,” Kohn said. “Music would truly be such an easy, powerful and supportive tool for emotion regulation.”

Emotional self-control helps to redirect or inhibit certain automatic responses that the body activates after certain stimuli, among which are emotional responses, such as anxiety. When this self-control refers to the management of one’s own emotions it is often referred to as emotional self-regulation (Tice and Bratslavsky, 2000), an ability that, therefore, consists in managing one’s own emotional responses, eliminating or changing their external expression or regulating the physical and psychological experiences thus generated (Gross and Thompson, 2007).

Every individual employs these types of strategies spontaneously, such as when we take a deep breath to calm down, or close our eyes to an unpleasant scene (Koole, 2009). In this sense, research has found that the development of this type of emotional self-regulation strategies brings great benefits, both for social and academic success, as well as in the search for personal well-being (Graziano et al., 2007; Gross and John, 2003).

Indeed, the studies carried out on the psychological effects of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrate its relationship with the generation or accentuation of emotions such as anguish, and with disorders such as anxiety, chronic stress and depression. Likewise, these conditions, developed or increased by this context of health, economic and social crisis, are associated with suicidal behavior over a period of time probably longer than the temporal persistence of the pandemic.

In this sense, it is essential to activate the necessary mechanisms to reduce the levels of anxiety and social loneliness through advertising campaigns, aimed at promoting mental health, especially among vulnerable individuals such as older population groups and people with a psychiatric history (Sher, 2020)”.

In this line, more studies are needed focused on the evaluation of sensory processing profiles/patterns, whose advances already show significant relationships of interdependence between high levels of sensory sensitivity and the suffering of conditions such as depression (Serafini et al., 2017).

From this perspective, the research of Serafini et al. (2017) has also demonstrated the contributions of depression to the prediction of hopelessness. Deepening these relationships, as well as the role of sensory processing patterns in affective disorders, would help design and implement interventions for the improvement of functional and adaptive strategies.

The investigation of emotions in music is extremely complex and, in essence, tries to seek justifications and answers around the way we perceive, and the factors and mechanisms that operate in listening (Tizón, 2016). Although this connection can be considered a no-brainer, it was not considered an object of study until the late nineteenth century and the first decades of the twentieth.

From the 80s of the twentieth century, it would become part of what is now called “musical cognition” and a qualitative leap in research on this field would take place, mainly when the first experiments on emotions in music appeared, taking into account a series of variables with respect to the preference of subjects (Konecni, 1982).

Starting in the 1990s, new paradigms arose around the relationship of music and emotions; one of them was the one that established a distinction between perception and emotion (Gabrielsson, 2002); that is, the emotion recognized or the emotion felt in music.

This ambivalence inspired a triple division of great recognition today (Hunter and Schellenberg, 2010): aesthetic emotions, real emotions and the so-called “states”. The former refer to artistic experiences (listening to music), the latter (called “utilitarian”) are those related to our daily life; and the “states” (of mood) denote a longer temporal range and not subject to a stimulus generating it.

Currently, research on music and its influence on the emotional and psychological world of the human being is a fruitful field which enjoys great reception by the scientific community, and has monographic periodicals of great prestige and impact. Of course, it is a field of study of recognized complexity given its multidimensionality, since the variables conforming it are very numerous and of a very different nature (physiological, social, musical, etc.).

More and more studies have shown the effectiveness of music as a resource capable of transforming the sensation/perception of one’s own state of anxiety and thus generate moods considered as more positive, as well as reducing it through listening to pleasant music (Batt-Rawden and Tellnes, 2011; González et al., 2020).

Music is a factor of multiple possibilities such as the transmission of emotions and communicative ability (Vieillard et al., 2008; Collier, 2007); emotional regulation (Nonken, 2008) and as an agent that influences and directly affects emotions (Pereira et al., 2011; Trost et al., 2011).

In this sense, Yehuda (2011) has pointed out that there are multiple studies that have shown that music is a catalyst for stress, although not every music is appropriate for this purpose since it is conditioned by the musical tastes of the individual (Elliot et al., 2011). People often choose one type of music or another as a tool for finding positive and/or negative effects to reach a balanced mood (Salimpoor et al., 2011; Gebhardt et al., 2016).

Thus, studies by Ter Bogt, Mulder, Raaijmakers and Nic Gabhainn (2011) defend the protective role of music against stress and the fact that listening to music induces positive moods helping cope with anxiety and distress. Similarly, Pothoulaki et al. (2008) have found that music is a great mood inducer which enables to not focus attention in stressful circumstances; this reduction in anxiety is especially noticeable when listening to music pleasing to the listener (Jiang et al., 2013; Johnsen et al., 2009).

The relationship between age and affinity for music has recently been addressed in the work of Glevarec et al. (2020), in which age, social class and cultural times are defined as three of the most significant causal variables in this relationship. The first variable also focuses the interest of the research of Lindblad and de Boise (2020), whose study objective was to analyze the effects on health and well-being of music in elderly men. In this study, it was observed that the participants used music to approach their own emotions and favor their social relationships.

The objective of this research is to know if music has been used as a consumer good, as well as the possible benefits of it at an emotional, psychological and affective level during the experience of confinement as a measure of protection against COVID-19 in Spain.

In this like, it has been intended to analyze whether music has been used as a tool to deal more effectively with the moments of anxiety or stress produced by the pandemic in the lockdown period, paying special attention to the possible divergences between different age ranges linked to aesthetic emotions generated by an intentional musical listening during lockdown, in order to decrease the levels of these emotions. Based on these objectives, the following research questions are formulated:

1. Is age a factor associated with the frequency of music consumption and the value assigned to this artistic expression for emotional self-regulation and relief from loneliness in contexts of health crisis?

2. Did the positive evaluations of music during the COVID-19 confinement in Spain lead to an increase in its consumption as a tool for emotional self-regulation in older adults?

reference link :

More information: Short-term musical training affects implicit emotion regulation only in behavior but not in brain activity. BMC Neuroscience(2021). DOI: 10.1186/s12868-021-00636-1.


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