Study finds listening to music can help regulate mood during a stressful situation

New research provides evidence that listening to music can be an effective means of improving mood in times of stress. The study has been published in PLOS One.

“This study is part of a larger series of studies on the functions of music listening,” said study author Jenny Groarke, a lecturer in at Queen’s University Belfast and member of the Centre for Improving Health-Related Quality of Life.

“Almost everyone on my mum’s side of the family are musicians and music lovers. My grandad was a drummer in a Dixieland band with all his brothers and later his sons. My brother and I and many of my cousins have also sat in with the band over the years. My dad’s side of the family — not so much!”

“I was curious about the different roles music played in the lives of my close family members, and how integral music was to some — meeting so many of their everyday emotional and social needs — and yet virtually non-existent in other people’s daily lives,” Groarke said.

In the study, 80 participants completed the Trier Social Stress Task — an experimentally verified stress-inducing scenario that relies on fear of public speaking.

The participants were given 5 minutes to prepare a short speech about themselves, which they were told they would deliver at the end of the laboratory session. They were then provided with a 10 minute break.

During this break, the participants were randomly assigned to either listen to music of their choice or listen to a radio documentary on Charles Darwin. After 10 minutes, the participants completed a survey designed to assess moods before being informed they wouldn’t actually have to deliver the speech.

The researchers found that participants who listened to music of their choosing tended to rate themselves as feeling less stressed, nervous, upset, sad, and depressed.

“When feeling stressed, listening to music can help us feel better, and it may not be important to listen to something that’s classically thought of as relaxing — even your favourite Ed Sheeran or Slipknot songs can do the trick,” Groarke told PsyPost.

The study — like all research — includes some limitations. It is still unclear, for instance, if listening to personally-chosen music provides more benefits that just listening to music in general.

“Most previous studies have compared music listening to silence. But sitting in silence doing nothing is a pretty uncommon activity in everyday life, so we thought it was better to compare music to listening to a radio show,” Groarke explained.

“The radio show was chosen by us. In contrast, the people who listened to music chose their own music to listen to. To fully understand the effects that choice and control have on stress reduction we would need to compare self-chosen and researcher-chosen music with self-chosen and researcher-chosen active control conditions.”

“We took some steps in this lab study to try to resemble everyday music listening conditions (self-chosen music compared with a realistic everyday activity) but at the same time the laboratory is a fairly unnatural music listening environment. An important aim for future studies is to try to replicate these findings in naturalistic settings, in the many different situations where music listening occurs in everyday life,” Groarke said.

“This will require the application of innovative experience sampling methods (such as the MuPsych app for personal music listening on smartphones: Randall & Rickard, 2014) with large samples and robust study designs that allow us to compare the effect of music listening experiences on stress reduction with other activities in daily life that may also reduce stress.”

The study, “Listening to self-chosen music regulates induced negative affect for both younger and older adults“, was authored by Jenny M. Groarke and Michael J. Hogan.