How Does Music Affect Emotions?

How Does Music Affect Emotions?

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By Reuben Brody for Just Mind

It’s 7:00 AM. Your alarm is alerting you that you need to get out of bed. But you’re not feeling it. You drag yourself to the bathroom. The light is bright. You wash, brush teeth, brush hair, and deodorize. You look back at your bed; it beckons. Static builds at the thought of driving to work. You press onward.

What’s the source of the sadness? Don’t know. Just feeling it. What’s the source of the anxiety? The news, the to-do list, the nagging feeling that you should be further along in life, that you’re behind. Yet, you press onward.

You talk to your therapist about these feelings, and that helps, but they still materialize unexpectedly like a summer thunderstorm. But there’s a silver lining in those clouds. It’s that everybody hurts.

You know that lyric: Everybody Hurts. REM sang it to as a reminder that we all feel this way from time to time. Life may seem meaningless and that we’re alone; however, art reminds us otherwise and that sometimes we all feel this.

That’s the point of the blues, a musical tradition so strong that it spawned the separate genres of jazz, rock and roll and hip hop. The blues started during the Jim Crow era, when former slaves toiled for peanuts in oppressive southern fields. Troubadours would visit the fields and play music to soothe the workers, and then later that night those musicians would rock the juke joints, where people would dance and experience joy as a community.

This community experience is very important to mollifying depressed feelings. Depression, as Ugo Uchi noted in Psychology Today, is, in part, a form of cognitive dissonance, a denial of one’s own feelings. By repressing your emotions you build static. By allowing yourself to acknowledge your feelings, you can better relate to others. In this regard, music, film, and art are two-way bridges, connecting you to yourself and others.

Blues singers harp about losing love, money troubles, jealousy and basically the entire gamut of human experiences. One could come away feeling like they don’t have it as bad as the singer. Another may feel shame because their troubles are so small in comparison.

That is a trap. No one should feel ashamed. At a recent KCRW taping, Sofi Tukker sang, “Shame, you kill my spirit and you’re useless.” In an interview with Jason Bently Sophie said that she wrote the lyrics because her and her friends are always trying to keep shame from allowing them to express how they feel. Tucker backed her up, noting that they’ve received notes and comments from fans that that lyric lifted them from dark thoughts. He went on to say that they felt so lucky to connect with people around the world this way, proving the universality of our emotions, our need to connect and how music can help us with this. 

Our ability to walk in someone else’s shoes, as Atticus Finch famously says in To Kill A Mockingbird, is the hallmark of empathy. Neurologically, we are programmed to do this, and it benefits us in making us feel connected as well as allowing us to cooperate with one another. Yuval Noah Harrari points out in Sapiens that our ability to cooperate and create fictions with our imaginations is why humans evolved to where we are today.

We can create new realities as a result of this, and we can make it interesting and entertaining. So next time you’re feeling the blues, press play, listen to some music you love, go dancing, watch a movie or visit a gallery. And marvel at our capacity to express ourselves and be there for each other. Because you are not alone.

If you enjoyed this blog post, you can also read What Does Music Do to the Brain? and So Much Commotion Over Emotions. Additionally, if you or anyone you know is having trouble with anxiety or depression, you can contact us to make a counseling appointment. You can also check out anxiety counseling and depression counseling on our dedicated pages for more information and for some great resources.

Photo by Spencer Imbrock on Unsplash