Music Offers Solace in Sadness

As we wrote in an earlier post, if scent has a hotline to memory, music has a hotline to emotions. Owing to this power that music has on influencing our emotions, music is routinely used to alter people’s feelings (something called musical mood induction) in scientific experiments that wish to look at the effects of different feelings on, for example, behavior1. This tight link between music and emotion, and emotion and cognition in general, may in part even account for the effects on performance that people experience after listening to music, such as improved focus, or even better sports performance.

If music is this powerful in altering our emotions, could it be used to counteract negative feelings such as stress and sadness that sometimes take a toll on us?

A recently published study investigated how young individuals use music in regulating adverse emotions such as sorrow and stress. More specifically, the researchers sought to explore whether individuals are consoled by music, and if they are, which aspects of music listening are experienced as particularly consoling2.

The solace we find in music has only recently become the subject of research, with most studies on music listening focusing on other goals such as augmenting arousal or increasing feelings of social connectedness. However, in terms of emotion regulation, music as a source of consolation seems like a powerful experience in dealing with feelings of stress and sadness, and therefore an important area of research.

In the study, 1040 participants filled out a questionnaire regarding their level of anxiousness and depression, how many hours they listen to music each day, how important music is to them, what emotions they experience during music listening, what kind of music they prefer, as well as the consolation experienced as a result of music listening. The questions related to consolation inquired whether the respondents experienced consolation from music in the first place, and if they did, which aspects of music listening produced the consolation:

  • the lyrics (the content is appealing, the artist is singing precisely about how the listener is feeling),
  • the feeling of togetherness (with the artist or the other fans),
  • or the music itself (the musical atmosphere or sounds). According to the results, 69.4% of the participants used music for consolation, with female participants using music for consolation slightly more than male participants (73.9% and 58.3%, respectively).
When looking at which aspects of music specifically produce consolation, the lyrics as well as the music itself proved most powerful.

The feeling of togetherness with the musician or other fans was not as significant. However, when looking at gender differences, the pattern was different, as male respondents reported experiencing consolation through the feeling of togetherness more often female respondents.

But does it work? Is music listening successful in providing consolation? The results suggest a tentative yes. When looking at connections between the anxiety and depression levels of respondents and the experience of consolation from music, clear trends were apparent. The lyrical content and features of the music were positively connected with consolation from anxiousness and depression. In addition, the experience of high affect during music listening was connected to experience of consolation. In terms of which musical genres were most consoling, pop and rock seemed to trump dance music, which was negatively associated with consolation.
As this study is a cross-sectional survey of the study population, there are limitations to the conclusions that can be drawn. In future, longitudinal studies that track responses in the same participants over time may be able to draw causal links between the different consoling effects of music listening, and changes in mood. Nevertheless, this work suggests that the solace provided by music listening may serve as one route to better management of mood and mental health. So the next time you are feeling blue why not prescribe yourself some music with lyrics that help you feel understood, or music with a soothing, comforting atmosphere, or one that helps you feel connected to others?

Written by Ketki Karanam


1. Västfjäll, D. (2002). Emotion induction through music: A review of the musical mood induction procedure. Musicae Scientiae, 5(1 suppl), 173-211. doi: 10.1177/10298649020050S107

2. ter Bogt, T. T. F., Vieno, A., Doornwaard, S. M., Pastore, M., & van den Eijnden, R. J. (2016). “You’re not alone”: Music as a source of consolation among adolescents and young adults. Psychology of Music, 0305735616650029. doi:10.1177/0305735616650029