Study Links Music With Listeners' Emotions

If you really want to get out of a foul mood, try listening to a little music.

A new study out of Penn State finds that music really can soothe the savage beast, up to a point, and it really doesn't matter what kind of music you listen to. As long as you like it.

"If you like music and choose to listen to it, it's probably going to make you feel better regardless of what type it is," says associate professor of psychology Valerie N. Stratton.

Stratton and associate music professor Annette H. Zalanowski, of Penn State's Altoona campus, teamed up to take music research out of the laboratory and put it in the real world in which we live. They wanted to see when people listen to music, what types of music they prefer, and what types of moods that music induces.

It turns out that most of us listen to it a lot, but usually when we're doing something else.

"We've been looking at music and behavior for quite a few years, and it finally struck us that most of the things we were doing, and most of the things that other people were doing, were within lab settings," says Stratton. "There was really very little out there that looked at how people listened to music in their daily lives."

So the researchers recruited 47 college students, including 25 music majors, and asked them to keep a diary for 14 days, noting the kinds of music they listened to. They were also asked to pick various moods from a list, showing their moods before, during and after listening to the music.

The Kids Like Rock

This is not exactly a startling finding, but the researchers found that college-age students overwhelmingly prefer to listen to rock music, whether hard, heavy or modern, and that includes music majors. If they weren't listing to hard rock, the non-music majors preferred country and soft rock. The music majors opted for classical and jazz after rock. The researchers were a bit surprised to find that non-music majors listened to more music than the music majors. The non-music majors listened to an average of 161 minutes of music per day, compared to 117.7 minutes for the music majors.

It's not clear exactly why that turned out to be the case, but it may be that the music students spend more time listening to music in their classes, so listening during their free time is too much like the proverbial postman taking a walk on his day off.

Mood Music

If the results of the study apply to all of us, regardless of age, we don't spend a whole lot of time just sitting and listening to music. Most of the participants in the study listened to music while doing something else, and that activity apparently influenced their choice of music.

Soft background music is neat while socializing with your friends, but if it's time to hop on the exercise machine and work on those abs, a little jazz might be preferable, the researchers found.

The results of the study suggest that music is terrific when it comes to reinforcing, or elevating our positive moods, and can chase away some of our negative feelings, with one peculiar finding.

Among the non-music majors, sad, hateful and aggressive moods eased up a bit. But that didn't work for the music majors. For them, those feelings remained either unchanged, or rose slightly.

Stratton speculates that perhaps students who are hoping for a career in music may be a little more in tune to the emotional impact of music, and may even choose certain types of music to stimulate that effect. Maybe it's that old bromide at work, to be a great artist you've got to suffer along the way. So turn on a little Mahler and weep. But oddly enough, the study found that the type of music was less important than rather the listeners really liked whatever they were listening to. Rock, the music of choice, made just about all the students "optimistic, joyful, friendly, relaxed and calm," according to the findings, published in a recent issue of Psychology and Education/ An Interdisciplinary Journal.

Melodies and Memories

It probably wouldn't do that for everybody, and that gives rise to an old question. Why does music have such a profound impact on our emotions?

Stratton says there are probably some physiological reasons. Different types of music may induce different "brain rhythms," she says. Fast music may cause the heart to speed up, for example.

But there are also cultural reasons why some music works for us, provoking very specific emotions.

Our "past associations" with certain pieces may have a major impact on how we react to a particular song.

Hearing a very happy tune may have a sad affect on someone who associates that song with an unfortunate experience.

"If you heard that song during a very sad event in your life, that's going to bring back that kind of memory," Stratton says. "It's a very personal thing."

My layman's opinion is that music works for us because it expresses the harmonics of the soul.

I haven't the foggiest idea what that means, but it sounds neat.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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