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By Clinical Psychology Registrar, Dr James Kirby

There will be days when I am driving home from work feeling pretty exhausted, tired, stressed, and also anxious about some of the work I still have not completed but was supposed to have done. Typically, when I am driving my car I have the radio playing in the background, but I often don’t give it that much attention. But yesterday a song was played that really got my attention, it was a song by Australian artist Dan Sultan called ‘The Same Man’. I don’t really remember the lyrics, but the beat and rhythm of the song really ‘picked me up’. Whilst listening to the song, I noticed it really improved my mood, for some reason I was nodding my head, it made me feel a lot more upbeat, positive, and less stressed. It is only a 4-minute song, but listening to that song was in many ways transformational for my mood.

This scenario is not uncommon, indeed, we can all relate to the power of a song to influence mood. Movies exploit the power of music constantly, the soundtracks of movies can really enhance the emotional tone the director is trying to convey in a scene. One of my favourite directors, Quentin Tarantino does it to glorious effect in the movie Pulp Fiction, and Stephen Spielberg was a master employing the music theme song to the movie Jaws. That music used when the shark is circling the boat in Jaws is simply chilling and builds suspense wonderfully. The question is, would the suspense in that scene in Jaws still be provoked to such a high level without the music? Try watching that scene from Jaws on mute, it just doesn’t have the same emotional impact.

What is encouraging for us is that we can use music to help regulate our emotions. What I mean is, at different times of the day, in different circumstances, we can use music to alter how we are feeling. This might mean you want to use music to fully explore the emotional state you are currently in, you might want to use music to get you out of a sad place, you might want to use music to bring on a sense of relaxation, or you can use music to give you the extra energy you need to get to the gym and do a work out.

Dr Genevieve Dingle from the University of Queensland is doing some cutting edge research examining how music can be used to help regulate our emotions with teenagers. The program is called, Tuned In Teens, and it was designed to help young people identify, name, tolerate and modify their emotions strategically, using music as the tool. When examining the Tuned In Teens program, it is more than just listening to a song to make you happy. Music is explored in terms of the effect it can have on our bodily sensations, the visual imagery it can bring, and how we make sense of the lyrics. The program is currently being evaluated with teenagers, however, the program was found to be helpful in a previous study by Dingle and her colleague Carly Fay with young adults aged 18-25 years. Music can be a very helpful way to help regulate mood, as some people find it hard verbalise how they are feeling and what they are thinking. Therefore, music can be a way to break through that verbal barrier. That is the hope of Dr Dingle and colleagues with helping teenagers regulate their moods in their current study at The University of Queensland.

The knowledge that music can influence our mood is of course not new, but it is surprising how little we use music strategically to help us with mood. In many ways, the benefits we can derive from music is under utilised and often can be left to chance. However, below are some simple ways you can use music to help regulate how you are feeling.

  1. When you notice a song playing that impacts your emotional state, try to identify what emotional state you were experiencing before the song and where the song took your emotional state. Also write down the song so you can use it later.
  2.  Create multiple playlists to help regulate your mood for different emotional states. For example create a playlist to help improve your mood from being stressed to happy. Create a playlist to help you relax when you are feeling anxious. Create a playlist for when you feel like you have no energy but need to get up and move.
  3. When listening to a piece of music try and notice what body sensations you are experiencing, does it give you a sense of calmness, a ‘chill’ or does it make you want to move?
  4. When listening to music try and think about what visual images come to mind?

Music is a wonderful and powerful tool. However, in order to derive its benefits the key is to use it. Make that playlist on your smart phone, create a CD for your car, or put some songs on your computer. The more you make it easily accessible, the more likely it is you will use it. Right now I am feeling pretty happy that I have finished writing this blog, so to help fully explore and enjoy this feeling I am going to start listening to ‘In your light” by Gotye. It’s one song that always makes me feel happy.

For more information on Dr James Kirby visit his profile page. 

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