Listening to sad music may make you anxious

Researchers in Finland explore to dig out more details on the cryptic connection between music and human psyche


Analysis showed that anxiety was higher in participants who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings. Photo: iStock
Analysis showed that anxiety was higher in participants who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings. Photo: iStock

London: Listening to sad music does not necessarily improve your mood, according to a new study that found people who listen to sad or aggressive music have higher levels of anxiety and neuroticism.

Clinical music therapists know the power music can have over emotions, and are able to use music to help their clients to better mood states and even to help relieve symptoms of psychiatric mood disorders like depression. But many people also listen to music on their own as a means of emotion regulation, and not much is known about how this kind of music listening affects mental health.

Researchers studied the relationship between mental health, music listening habits and neural responses to music emotions by looking at a combination of behavioural and neuro-imaging data. “Some ways of coping with negative emotion, such as rumination, which means continually thinking over negative things, are linked to poor mental health,” said the main author of the study Emily Carlson, from University of Jyvaskyla in Finland.

Participants were assessed on several markers of mental health including depression, anxiety and neuroticism, and reported the ways they most often listened to music to regulate their emotions. Analysis showed that anxiety and neuroticism were higher in participants who tended to listen to sad or aggressive music to express negative feelings, particularly in males.

To study the brain’s unconscious emotion regulation processes, the researchers recorded the participants’ neural activity as they listened to clips of happy, sad and fearful-sounding music using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). Analysis showed that males who tended to listen to music to express negative feelings had less activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex (mPFC). However, for females,tendency to listen to music to distract from negative feelings reflected an increased activity in the mPFC.

“The mPFC is active during emotion regulation. These results show a link between music listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain,” said senior author Elvira Brattico, from University of Helsinki in Finland. The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.