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Study: Men experience more anxiety from aggressive music

A study at three Finnish universities found that music has profound, possibly long-term effects on the emotional state of the human brain. The researchers say that while the music-emotion correlation may appear obvious at first glance, the study could bring the medical world a step closer towards the mainstream use of music in therapy.

Image: YLE Oulu
Mark Odom

In a study about how music affects the emotional state of the human brain, researchers at Jyväskylä, Helsinki and Aalto Universities found that music has profound and possibly long-term effects on the emotional state of the human brain.

While music therapy is already practiced somewhat in the mental health world, the study found music therapy could be used more widely, especially for mood and anxiety disorders.

Emily Carlson, a music therapist and researcher at the University of Jyväskylä, says that people already use music as a sort of mood-altering substance on their own.

"Many new and interesting studies show that some people can get true pleasure out of listening to sad music, without becoming depressed, and some people even feel better emotionally after listening to sad music. There is also evidence, however, that some people do feel worse after listening to sad music. There is no black and white answer to this, unfortunately," Carlson told Yle News.

"[Our] tests asked participants how they used music in everyday life in dealing with their feelings, for example by using music to distract themselves from negative feelings, or using music to express their negative feelings," Carlson said.

"Participants were free to think about any kind of music they use in this way, so as far as that test is concerned, all styles can be used in mood regulation," she said.

Study relevant to Finland's love of heavy metal?

Carlson said there might also be a relation between the study’s findings and the widespread popularity of aggressive heavy metal music in Finland.

"I think [the results are] definitely relevant to the music culture here in Finland," she said.

Are people drawn to certain kinds of music according to their mental state, or does it work the other way around, do people just listen to the music they prefer?

"It likely depends on the person. Previous research suggests that females may try to regulate their moods more consciously than males, and our own findings showed that females used music for distraction more than males," she said.

"Someone who is more aware of their own feelings, and how music makes them feel, may be more likely to choose music for the purposes of regulating their mood. However, mood regulation is not the only reason that people listen to music -- people may choose to listen to music for entertainment, enjoyment, dancing, social bonding, and many other reasons as well," Carlson said.

'Emotional' music from movie soundtracks

The study involved 123 participants, 68 females and 55 males between the ages of 18 and 55 in the Helsinki area, who were first given a psychological test. Participants’ mental health states were catalogued and then they participated in music listening sessions.

Researchers played the participants musical excerpts -- taken from movie soundtracks -- which included snippets of music that each represented emotions of happiness, sadness and fear, then logged reactions and results.

Soundtrack music was used because it is composed with the intent to induce emotional responses in listeners. As they played the different types of music, the researchers used a combination of psychological testing and magnetic resonance imaging of the participants' brains to see how they were affected.

"Our interest then was not in the style of the music per se, but in the emotion that the music was expressing," Carlson said.

The study found there were significant differences between gender both in behaviour and neural responses to music, in regard to how individuals manage their emotions.

In particular, it was men who showed increased symptoms of anxiety and neuroticism when they dealt with negative emotions by listening to sad or aggressive music.

Does depressing, anxious music increase depression, anxiety?

"In my own experience as a music therapist, I would say anxious music can increase depression or anxiety, especially of the person is already suffering from depression and struggling with feeling out of control of their own mood states," Carlson said.

"However, our study only shows that there may be a correlation between listening to music that expressive negative feelings and having poorer mental health. Further study is needed to understand whether listening to sad or angry music causes feelings of depression and anxiety, or if having depression or anxiety causes someone to listen to sad or angry music. The true answer is probably somewhere in between."

Carlson said that there were several studies that attempted - and mostly failed - to show that particular genres of music were somehow 'bad' and have very negative effects on listeners, particularly genres like metal and rap.

"There was even a study once that showed a correlation between country music and suicide," she said with astonishment.

"We feel that studies like these are much too broad, and that vilifying a particular genre is not the way to go. Rather, we conducted our study to focus on how individual differences between people might be related to mental health," she said.

The full text of the study Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: a behavioral and neuroimaging study of males and females can be found in PDF here.

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