Study finds heroic music stimulates empowering and motivating thoughts

A study published in the journal Scientific Reports provides new insights into the effects of music on thoughts. The research indicates that heroic music tends to evoke more empowering and motivating thoughts, while sad music tends to evoke more relaxing or depressive thoughts.

“While people spend a great deal of time listening to music, our knowledge on how music influences our mind is limited,” said study author Tobias Bashevkin of the University of Bergen.

Previous research has found that music that was felt to be “beautiful but sad” could help people feel better when they were experiencing sadness.

“While we know some about how music influences our emotions, we know less about how music affects thought. Our idea was that thoughts would be more positive and that people would feel more motivated to act when listening to heroic music, as compared to sad music,” Bashevkin explained.

“We find this interesting as it could have implications for the treatment of individuals with depression but also contribute to facilitating constructive, motivated, and positive thoughts in healthy populations.”

In the new study, the researchers had 62 participants listen to six brief excerpts of heroic- and sad-sounding music. Each heroic-sounding excerpt was paired with a sad-sounding excerpt that had the same tempo and loudness. All of the excerpts were orchestral, neo-orchestral, or string-orchestral in nature — and did not include lyrics.

(For example, a two-minute sample from Addicted to Success by Fearless Motivation Instrumentals was used as one heroic-sounding excerpt. Listen below.)

After listening to each excerpt, the participants completed questionnaires that assessed mood, mind-wandering, and characterized the contents of their thoughts. They were lead to believe that the experiment was about music and relaxation — and fitted with electrocardiography electrodes to monitor their heartbeat.

The researchers found that heroic- and sad-sounding music were associated with different thoughts and moods.

“While previous research has supported music as a strong modulator of emotion, our study uncovered that music also influences the content of thoughts. We found thoughts to be more positive, active, motivated, and constructive when listening to heroic music,” Bashevkin told PsyPost.

“Furthermore, the words used by the participants were more positive, implying that the music you listen to matters for your thoughts and emotions. Previous studies have found that people suffering from depression prefer sad music (Millgram et al., 2015). Our study, which did not work directly with clinical populations, found that listening to heroic music leads to more positive thoughts than listening to sad music.”

“This could indicate that while people with negative affect and thought prefer sad music, they might do better with more positive music like heroic music.”

But the study — like all research — includes some caveats.

“Our study was working with the term mind-wandering. The definitions of mind-wandering are quite differing, with some definitions being mutually exclusive of others,” Bashevkin explained.

“Thus, making the design of questions meant to grasp the concept difficult. However, with our focus on mind-wandering as thought, which is not deliberate or effortful, we are confident that we have grasped the essence.”

The study, “Heroic music stimulates empowering thoughts during mind-wandering“, was authored by Stefan Koelsch, Tobias Bashevkin, Joakim Kristensen, Jonas Tvedt, and Sebastian Jentschke.