Listening to music is a very powerful way of changing the way people feel. Some people are very aware of how they use music to make themselves feel different, while others do this more intuitively, but everyone seems to have some degree of control over the way they use music for matching or changing their emotions. Music is used more frequently than any other strategy when it comes to changing the way people feel, and it's most commonly used for distraction, reducing tension and relaxation.
It has been suggested that there are seven different ways that music makes people feel things. Some of these are very immediate and common to all, like the brainstem response to sound, the potential for synchronising activity to the rhythms of music, or the emotional contagion of the emotions expressed in the music. Some are shared within a given culture, like the use of particular musical instruments or tone patterns to signal certain emotional states or the patterns of expectation set up by certain musical styles. And some are much more personal, like the individual associations we develop with particular tracks or the visual images that people might imagine while listening to music.
People listen to music in many different situations to distract themselves from what is going on. For instance, while travelling, people choose music they like to make the time pass more quickly and to provide a soundtrack to the activity. With exercise, music is used to dissociate from the activity at hand, reducing feelings of pain and also making time pass more rapidly. It even seems to lead to more endurance and effort being put in. Athletes often have their own preferred music that puts them in the right mindset to engage in challenging physical activity and to connect to others through a sense of shared identity. Our new research into music and willpower is suggesting that music might be used at the point of decision-making over exercise habits too, helping people get in the right mood to actually go to the gym as they intended rather than slumping on the sofa after a hard day's work.
Research has not yet looked directly at how music might help with other health-related decisions such as giving up smoking, but all our findings would suggest that identifying and then using the right pieces of motivational music could have a huge impact in terms of distraction when it comes to moment-to-moment decisions and in terms of breaking unhealthy patterns of behaviour. Thinking about the musical emotion mechanisms, this might work in terms of immediate brainstem response which would divert attention from the behaviour at hand, and in helping people connect to memories in their past and to future thoughts about their ideal self, as well as generally boosting positive thoughts. While music can be a very personal choice, there are certain characteristics of songs that align with the different ways music makes people feel things. This might be high arousal music to boost and distract the mind, or slower paced music to calm and relax. I've helped shape the Minis Motivational Mix playlist with a mix of different types of song to provide some inspiration to people that might be trying to reach specific goals, such as cutting down on smoking. You can listen to it here.