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7 fascinating ways music can affect your emotions

This was originally published in Tone Deaf.

Music has power. It can alter your mood in ways that are sometimes beyond control. Whether that means switching from happy to sad, angry to calm or nonchalant to nostalgic – there is no doubt that music affects you.

While you probably know the impact music has on your moods and emotions, there are many other areas of our lives where those sweet sounds play a role.

Music psychologist and Program Director of Psychology at Swinburne Online, Nikki Rickard shares some little known ways that music shapes the way we behave. Nikki has become a leading researcher in music psychology and in 2014 was appointed President of the Australian Music and Psychology Society, the peak professional body for music psychology in Australia.

Music is better than sex, drugs and money

Who needs sex, drugs and money when you have rock and roll? That’s right – playing your favourite tracks can make you feel like you’re having exceptional sex, have just come into a pile of cash or are on an extreme high.

So next time you’re looking for a bit of excitement in your life, save yourself the drama and spend a night in with your favourite tunes pumped up.

You can calm yourself with ‘extreme’ music

Whether you love Slayer, Escape the Fate, Bring Me the Horizon, Parkway Drive or even a bit of Iron Maiden you might be surprised to know that the anger you feel isn’t coming from that thudding drop d.

Research indicates that music classified as ‘extreme’ (metal and punk to you and I) can actually make you calmer. Listening to ‘extreme’ music will make you feel calm because it’s an emotional regulator. When you use it in this way, it connects with your negative emotions and processes them to make you feel positive.

Music from adolescence has a unique place in our minds

We’ve all experienced that feeling when a song comes on the radio that pulls on those teenage heartstrings and triggers memories and emotions from days of reckless abandon. The reason for this is that memories and familiar music from your adolescent years are integrated in a small part of our brain called the medial prefrontal cortex.

Girl listening to music

Teenage years are vital to self-discovery and filled with lots of emotional charge, which tend to be remembered better because of the arousal hormones released meaning that the two become strongly intertwined and stay with you for longer.

Suspense is key to emotional response

You know that intense feeling you get when the beat is about to drop or just before your favourite final chorus? That’s music being suspenseful on purpose. Music is tricky and musicians can manipulate it to make sure your emotions fluctuate throughout a track.

The theme from 2001 A Space Odyssey, Sprach Zarathustra, uses musical suspense perfectly. It teasingly leads to its peak but takes a lifetime to actually reach it – getting there quickly wouldn’t be nearly as gratifying or powerful as it is with so many delayed promises and violations of your expectations.

Sad music is more emotionally powerful than happy musicHappy songs can put you in a great mood and truly lift your spirits, but more often it’s the sorrow-filled pieces that take our emotions.The overpowering feelings of sadness and melancholy that you get when listening to Jeff Buckley’s cover of Hallelujah or Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt are amplified because they resonate with your feelings. Sometimes this is more meaningful to your growth or understanding than cheerful songs.You can literally ‘catch’ emotions from musicDo you ever find yourself unwillingly tapping your foot to the beat of a banger or nodding your head along to a strong rhythm? You’ve caught musical emotion or formally speaking, ‘emotional contagion’.While still just speculation, we think this may happen through empathy. Just as you empathise with the emotions of others, that same part of your brain leads to a first-hand experience of feeling the emotions through music too.Music encourages peak performanceWhat do Nick Kyrgios, Rhonda Rousey or your local footy club all have in common? They listen to pre, intra and post-match music to put them in the right headspace to perform at their peak. Music is a seriously effective way to re-align your mood or motivation to a desired state and the good news is that you don’t need to be a sports sensation to crack the code.

If you’re feeling underwhelmed or and want to be fully alert and focused, listen to something with a fast tempo and driving rhythm – this will get your heart beating faster and have you ‘pumped up’ in no time.

Similarly, lyrics can help achieve a certain mental state, ultimately making you more confident, focused and tough! Eminem’s ‘Till I Collapse, Queen’s We are the Champions or The Black Keys Lonely Boy are all perfect tracks to get you in that headspace.

Dr Nikki Rickard is the Program Director of Psychology at Swinburne Online and current President of the Australian Music and Psychology Society. Dr Rickard was awarded her PhD from La Trobe University in 1995 and began her academic career at Monash University in 1996.