What kind of music puts you in a good mood? What music would you choose when your friends come for a visit? Does music comfort you when you are sad, or perhaps give you energy for physical exercise or cleaning? Music is present in our daily life in many ways, and it has a strong influence on our mood and actions. About a third of our daily waking time includes music.

The emotional effects of music have become a current topic in music psychology research. We know what kind of musical features make a listener experience music as tender, aggressive or sad. We also know that individuals vary greatly in terms of their experiences: for some, heavy metal is irritating and grating to the ears, whereas others find it energising and empowering.

Musical preferences reflect our personality, values and cultural background. Common to us all, however, is that the music we like enables a rich repertoire of emotional experiences: relaxation, power, joy, and sense of togetherness, for instance.

The power of music in terms of emotional influence is based on the multiple effective mechanisms involved: We react at the level of reflexes to acoustic stimuli, synchronise ourselves with the rhythms we hear and identify ourselves with a variety of paralinguistic nuances such as pitch, tone and loudness of voice, which even babies utilise in their communication. We also associate music with various affective memories, opinions, symbolic meanings as well as “grammatical” rules we have learnt, say, in the context of melancholy and minor scales. Music is an emotional language, which operates widely in the different areas of bodily-cognitive experience.

What actual benefits can this influential emotional language bring? Music offers entertainment and experiences, of course, but there are deeper and broader meanings as well. For example, musical activities have been shown to promote social interaction among preschool-aged children. Choir practices are known to decrease stress hormone levels; it has been demonstrated that listening to music can alleviate the experience of pain; and music therapy is a proven and effective treatment for depression. Besides emotional effects, music also activates cognitive and motor functions. It can enhance language learning and help those recovering from a stroke.

The numerous beneficial effects of music are thus receiving increasing interest in this field of research.

The University of Jyväskylä has one of the world’s leading research units in music psychology. We examine the cognitive processing of music from the respective perspectives of everyday experience, education, and therapy. In this we apply various methods ranging from brain and motion research to computer science. Music is just one form of art, but research on it offers varied perspectives in our efforts to understand broader psychological processes and social phenomena.

In my research I am currently investigating when the use of music as an emotional tool is healthy and how music can be utilised in the learning of emotional skills. We know, for example, that when young adults listen to music, their affective aims and effects are in better mutual alignment than among teenagers. We are now investigating what contextual variables and individual background factors explain success in affective regulation in daily life and what kind of emotional processing promotes recovery in music therapy.

Music is a vitamin pill for daily life and it contributes to stress management, learning, bodily awareness, and social interaction. Understanding the influence mechanisms of such a versatile medicine poses quite a challenge, which calls for multidisciplinary research. In its complexity, music is an excellent tool for emotions in particular, because the emotions may also be rather complex at times, with the fabric of rhythms and melodies providing an apt reflecting surface for them.

Suvi Saarikallio

Associate Professor of Music Education, docent in music psychology
Department of Music, Art and Culture Studies, University of Jyväskylä

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