Most people are aware that music evokes all sorts of emotions. Good, bad, happy, sad. The question that struck me recently while in a melancholy mood and listening to melancholy music was this: Even though my mood drew me to listen to soulful music to give myself a kind of emotional hug, would I be better served listening instead to more upbeat music? Can we use the power of music to actually change our mood? Could it be a form of medication? If I changed my tune on that melancholy day and put on happy, inspiring music instead, would my mood follow suit? "You can absolutely use music to affect someone's mood," says Elizabeth J. Miles, an ethnomusicologist who has been working with music and mood for a decade and has written extensively about the power of music to actually change states in our body and mind. "Psychologists have been using music as a therapeutic technique for more than 100 years." I asked her to explain what actually makes music "sound" happy in the first place.
"Music sounds happy and uplifting when there's a lively tempo and major key harmonies," she told me. "Upward leaps in the melody can help too, as in the 'power ballad.' Words help a lot as well. The music is thought to engage a place in your brain called the hypothalamus, which regulates hormones and is part of the limbic system, which is the brain's center of emotions. All sound, including music, is processed there and in the thalamus before it is processed by the cortex, the part of your brain that actually thinks." So that's the reason I get all mushy when I hear the song that reminds me of my high school prom? "Yes," Miles explained. "Reading, for example, goes directly to the cortex. But music comes through the ear and must pass through the 'feeling center' first on its way to being processed. That's why music can evoke such emotion."
USING MOOD TO ALTER YOUR MOOD
Miles suggested some ways music could be used to attempt to change one's mood. The first is a mood treatment called vectoring -- also known as the iso principle. "Vectoring -- the iso principle -- starts with where you are now," Miles explained. "For example, if you're feeling really down and someone puts on a high-intensity 'up' anthem, it might turn you off. So instead, you start with music that's closer to the mood you're in right now, or maybe one that's just a tad 'happier.' For example: Jack Johnson's song "Upside Down" from Curious George. Then, with each successive song you put on, you notch it up one rung on the emotional ladder. Just keep turning it up -- making the music a little happier, a little faster, a little more upbeat." This technique is an application of a behavior modification technique called chaining.
Miles suggested the following as a sample of an "iso" or "vector" sequence to "ramp up gradually when you're feeling down"...
1) Jewel, "Hands" or Jack Johnson, "Upside Down" 2) The Staple Singers, "I'll Take You There" 3) U2, "Beautiful Day"
What happens when you don't have time for all that music? Let's say you're in the office, and feeling just a tad sad about something or maybe you're short on energy, and need to get up to "workplace speed" quickly. Miles' suggestions for a quick mood elevator -- Beethoven's "Symphony No. 9" (Finale: "Ode to Joy") or Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness." "You can also try show tunes, or any song that takes you back to a good place," she said. Miles suggested anything from the CD "Absolutely the Best of the 70's." "But don't just listen -- sing along! Or better yet, dance, assuming you have some privacy." If you don't have privacy, just tapping your toes can get your body changing. Any favorite psych-up song will do. "If you're not really down but just a little blasé and maybe have the 'afternoon slumps,' just take your happy song with you. One listen to Gloria Gaynor's song "I Will Survive" can turn a whole afternoon around."
FEELING THE BLUES
But what about when you feel kind of sad and melancholy and actually want to stay there or need to stay there to work through some emotional pain? "Perfectly normal," said Miles. "Sure it's a kind of wallowing. But it can be very cathartic -- you're expelling negative feelings out of your body." She explained that "cleansing music" can fall into two categories -- one is the kind of "sad" melancholy music I tend to listen to when feeling sorry for myself and the other is loud, angry, music with lots of buzzing and distortions. "Teenagers listen to a lot of that kind of music," Miles explained, "because their hormones are raging and they've got a bunch of feelings they have to get out." Miles suggested that this kind of "cleansing" or cathartic music might be a great option for women who tend to feel pain and hurt in a different way than men. When feeling hurt, women could react well to a quick break of cleansing music. Her choices?
1) Anything by Metallica or Megadeth (the heavy metal bands) or Public Enemy (rap) or 2) "Mars" from "The Planets" by Gustav Holst
Note: Since I know many readers are not familiar with Metallica or Megadeth, I asked Miles about other options. Alternative: Classical music by the late Sergei Rachmaninoff, a Russian composer, pianist and conductor. "If you're cleansing with that kind of music, you should limit it to just one or two songs," Miles told me. "Then 'reset' yourself afterward by listening to something relaxing. It's like taking a warm bath after a hard run on the treadmill." She also suggested that for maximum results you get physically involved in the music by drumming along on the table. And if you don't want to "cleanse" but prefer to wallow? "Make a deal with yourself," she suggested. "You get two sad songs -- you get to cry it out -- and then you start the vectoring technique to return to happiness." "Remember," she told me, "one of the absolute best things about music as a mood manager is that you can do it anywhere."