This year’s ABC Classic 100 looks at music that makes you feel good and why it can boost moods

This year’s ABC Classic 100 looks at music that makes you feel good and why it can boost moods
  • PublishedMay 13, 2024

Many of us turn to music to cheer us up or calm us down.

Perhaps Harold Arlen’s Over The Rainbow can make you feel wistful. Or, like Bridgerton characters Daphne and Simon, Max Richter’s Spring elicits joy.

These feelings are not just in your head; there’s evidence that music can influence how we feel.

“Music promotes the release of neurochemicals that literally makes us feel good,” ABC Classic presenter and registered psychologist Greta Bradman says.

To understand how, we need to dig deep into the brain. 

How music makes us feel

Music fires a complex response from many parts of our brain.

Ms Bradman says there’s a well-understood link between music and dopamine, a hormone that’s released when we experience pleasure. It’s one reason why listening to our favourite song is so satisfying. 

Listening to or playing music (especially with other people) can also induce oxytocin, sometimes referred to as the love hormone.

A 2015 study found singers in a choir experience faster social bonding due to the endorphin releases occurring as a result of the singing.

But can interacting with music shift the mood we’re in, and change how we feel?

Songs to shift our mood

Katrina Skewes McFerran, professor of music therapy at the University of Melbourne and a practising music therapist, regularly observes how music impacts her clients’ moods.

Music therapists help people use music as a coping mechanism as they manage difficult stages of their lives.

“People use music to enhance their mood, regulate themselves or distract them from problems,” Professor McFerran says.

But in order for music to work as a mood-shifter, you need to be in tune with your emotions; that is, able to note which songs make you feel wistful, whimsical, melancholy, hopeful or nostalgic, for example.

Ms Bradman says we’re much better at regulating our emotions “when we can be more granular with representing how we are feeling”.

“I have a pre-associated reaction to disco music and multiple repetitions of feeling energised and happy when I hear disco tracks,” Professor McFerran says.

But this shortcut doesn’t work for everyone.

Professor McFerran says putting on happy music when we feel sad or stressed won’t work instantly.

“Music doesn’t work like magic,” she says.

Instead, Professor McFerran uses a technique known as the Iso-Principle when she’s working with clients.

“First you match the mood of the person you’re working with [with your song choices], then you [gradually] progress towards the mood that you are seeking [with different song choices].”

If a person feels sad, they might start with sad music to validate that feeling. But rather than sticking to sadness, they can work towards another feeling, such as hopefulness or acceptance, with music that evokes those feelings for them.

Recognising the catch

Music psychologist Sandra Garrido from the University of Western Sydney says tracking how songs make us feel is an important part of a healthy musical diet.

Dr Garrido’s team developed an app to track songs and mood over time. It allows users to curate a personalised playlist using the Iso-Principle.

But there’s a catch.

Classical music buffs might instinctively choose Beethoven’s Ode to Joy to lift their mood, or Mozart’s Lacrymosa when they need to express sadness, but our subconscious listening choices can have unintended consequences.

“What we found in our research is that we have habits of behaviour that we fall into which aren’t necessarily good for our wellbeing,” Dr Garrido explains.

Sometimes listening to sad music can be satisfying in the moment. But Dr Garrido cautions it can also “make us get stuck in whatever it is that makes us feel worried and sad”.

This is what music psychologists call “rumination”.

“Music is the perfect partner for ruminating,” Professor McFerran says, because music can amplify our emotions and invoke certain thoughts or memories.

Rumination can happen especially when we put a song on repeat, bringing up the same thoughts and feelings again and again.

When you find yourself in this state, it can be a sign it’s time to change the song, Ms Bradman says.

A safe foundation for our emotions

Dr Garrido and Professor McFerran say the way we interact with music, and our reactions to music are incredibly complex — and very personal.

For example, Dr Garrido conducted a study in which two participants were played the same song and asked to respond.

Both had just experienced a break up.

“They kept a diary of their thoughts … One felt hopeful after listening to one of Adele’s break-up songs, but the other person felt mounting despair,” Dr Garrido says.

Professor McFerran also points out it’s not just listening to music that can impact our moods. 

“For some people, it’s going to be music listening, but for others, it might be playing or singing,” she says.

The Blackheath Festival Chorus, a mix of old and young choristers dressed in plain black and holding sheet music.
Research has shown choir participants experience an endorphin spike.(Blackheath Choir Festival: Trish Davies)

Whichever way you choose to enjoy music, Ms Bradman says using it to boost our mood is worth doing: 

 “Music can give us a safe foundation where we can sit with our emotions.

“Music [provides] us with a soundtrack to our current state which validates our emotions and help us make sense of them.

Ascribing emotions to music can make it feel safer, less uncertain and less intangible.

“From there, we can make space for the emotion, allow it, process it and move beyond it,” Ms Bradman says.


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