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Mood on shuffle: how does music affect how we feel?

Music plays a central role in our lives, whether we realise it or not. It is frequently used to entertain and amuse us, as well as being a very powerful means of influence. Music is in everything around us; films and television, advertisements and even shops and restaurants have music playing in the background! But music goes beyond this, and it can be a powerful tool in allowing us to connect more with our emotions and get through challenging times.

Our brains are incredible.  They absorb information and enable us to learn patterns that we hear and their associations with different contexts. You only have to think of a scary film you’ve seen to remember that visceral reaction you felt throughout your body when the villain jumped out in front of the ‘good guy’ in a dark alleyway… Do you remember what music was playing in that scene? No? Well we can assume it probably wasn’t a jolly sounding folk tune as it’s unlikely that this would give you the same feeling of fear – we’re just too used to hearing this sort of music in a happy context such as Heidi to believe that a scare is coming…

But the amazing thing is, most of this happens without us even realising and there is so much more that music does behind the scenes. One study looked at the brains of people whilst they listened to music and saw an increase in activity and when people were playing instruments, they saw the whole brain light up. It also activates areas in the brain that can distract you from pain – that’s why music can really help if you’re exercising or getting a painful tooth filling.

Music genre is also important – when we listen to music we like, our brains release dopamine causing us to experience feelings of pleasure and it can also reduce our levels of stress hormone (cortisol) causing us to feel calmer. You might wonder then, why do we sometimes actively listen to sad music? One argument for this is that it makes us feel understood by the musician and therefore less alone. Certain music has also been found to help us use energy more efficiently and even improve our memory and learning ability. The benefits are endless!

Here are some ways you can use music to support your mood 

Find out how music affects you by asking yourself these questions:

  • Does it make you feel better or worse? Does it make your body feel a certain way?
  • Can it change your mood?
  • Are there any particular genres/artists/lyrics that you find helpful or unhelpful to listen to?

Create playlists for different moods and times of day

Or if you can’t be bothered to make your own, most music streaming sites have ready-made playlists. When I hit a block writing this I searched for ‘music to help you concentrate’, clicked play and sure enough, managed to get some more sentences down!

Don’t listen to songs associated with bad memories

Music is powerful in evoking memory which is great sometimes but less good when those memories are unpleasant.  If it brings up bad memories, skip the song!

Listen mindfully

How often do you listen properly to the lyrics in a song? Try really noticing the lyrics in songs you like and think about what they mean to you.

For musicians – try writing a piece of music yourself

It can be a great way of expressing your emotions and connecting with others (if you choose to share it!)


If you’d like to learn more about music and the brain click here.


By Molly Phillips

Posted on: 3rd July 2020

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