Music listening is an integral and oftentimes purposeful activity in our daily lives. We listen to particular tracks in order to change our current emotional state or in order to maintain it. How we react to a particular song not only depends on the musical attributes of that song but on various situational and personal factors.

by Sami Behbehani, 15. March 2019

Possibilities for musical self-regulation are limitless in today’s modern society. Technical advancements such as smartphones, high-quality earphones, and music streaming have enabled listeners to access massive song-libraries from anywhere, at any time.

Consequently, individuals can immediately react to new circumstances by adapting their listening strategy accordingly.

However, the process of self-regulation through music is highly subjective and dependent on various factors.

Perceiving an emotion doesn’t mean that you feel it the same as other people.

A song is a construct, whose single elements merge and ultimately communicate a particular feeling or atmosphere. Most likely, a listener will perceive this feeling accurately. Yet, the feeling having any effect on the emotional state of the listener is not given.

“Whether a certain song evokes an emotion or not depends firstly on the listener’s musical preference, secondly the previous listening experience and thirdly, empathy with the recording artist” – Sami Behbehani

As in movies, a certain degree of identification with the protagonist is preconditioned for the story to touch the audience. In a musical context, empathy is the precondition for a song’s story to strike interest and cause emotional contagion. Studies have shown that with an increasing degree of empathy towards a song/artist, a higher correspondence between perceived and felt emotion during music listening can be experienced.

Your listening environment influence your music selection more than personal attributes

Some recent scientific studies have shown situational circumstances to have a stronger influence on the process of music selection than personal attributes of the listener. However, capturing the essence of a situation is a complex and scientifically still relatively unexplored issue. Situations do not only include physical elements such as location, persons, weather, time of day etc. But there is also the aspect of how a person reacts towards these respective elements. This aspect even includes potential highly complex interactions between person and situation.

In our daily lives, we experience various situations that affect us in different ways and to which we react accordingly. While some of these situations occur spontaneously, others allow us to plug in our earphones or switch on our speakers. For instance: On our way to work we might get bored and hence need something to lift us up; while getting ready in the morning we might want to start the day off on a positive or energetic note; when we socialize with others we like to create a comforting atmosphere; and in order to prepare for a stressful situation we want to reach a higher state of excitement, in order to handle the situation better.

 

  “Sad music can mirror the listener’s feelings and therefore help to process experienced sadness, ultimately resulting in uplift.”

Common strategies of emotional regulation

  1. Aesthetic enjoyment

Studies have shown that personal well-being is a key motive for music listening. When listening to preferred songs it makes the listener draw enjoyment from the overall listening experience. Liked music was shown to trigger the release of neurological messengers such as dopamine and serotonin, signaling pleasure and reward to the system, resulting in increased comfort. This can be interpreted as a mood-improvement process through aesthetic stimulation, which however does not modify the listener’s emotion in a specific fashion.

 

  1. Sustaining cheerfulness

Further in line with the principle of emotional regulation is a deliberate choice of songs that communicate emotions parallel with those felt by the listener. Persons experiencing cheerfulness tend to listen to happy music more frequently because they like to maintain the emotional state they are in. This is a common strategy in situations where social interaction between persons is desirable, as at parties or relaxed evenings with friends.

 

  1. Emotional Self-therapy

Another strategy that directly influences a music listener’s emotional state is utilized when experiencing negative emotion. Sad music, for instance, is highly popular amongst listeners of different genres on the one hand; and on the other hand, it can exert a strong effect on the listener. As compared to happy music which rather maintains or enforces an existing emotional state, sad or depressing songs are more commonly used for musical self-therapy. If previously mentioned mechanisms such as empathy with the song/artist, preference for the style etc. are given, sad music can mirror the listener’s feelings and therefore help to process experienced sadness, ultimately resulting in uplift.

 

  1. Stimulation

Aggressive music is a special case in itself because it can be positively stimulating on the one hand yet also expresses a negative emotional connotation on the other hand. Listening to aggressive music while experiencing feelings of aggression can have a channeling effect. Beyond that, intense music, aggressive music, in particular, enables the listener to achieve a higher degree of stimulation. This effect is consciously or subconsciously utilized by music listeners in order to: get pumped up for physical activities such as sports or dancing; motivate themselves to pull through monotonous tasks such as housework and cooking; or prepare themselves mentally for events known to include conflict and negative stress.

Implications for the future

It can be suggested that any form of maintaining or improving one’s emotional state through music falls under the category of musical-self therapy.

There is however no auditive all-around solution for daily needs since individuals vary in their personal attributes and situations exert different effects on different people. Since music recommendation algorithms rarely or not at all focus on mentioned aspects, it is unlikely for them to serve as an adequate daily regulation-tool for listeners.

Research is still at a point where new discoveries can potentially shake up the field and though there are several studies with valid findings, most likely no study will ever be able to include all parameters that fully explain human music listening behavior.

From the consumer’s perspective, the last few years of technological development have facilitated a free and goal-driven use of music. This positive development could continue in the future with tech-companies and start-ups working on new ways for music to fulfill the listeners’ potential needs.