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Is the music you listen to affecting your brain long-term?

Are you a negative, neurotic mess? Then science suggests it’s time to switch off the broody, angry music and make the change to something a bit more upbeat.

Researchers from the Centre for Interdisciplinary Music Research at the University of Jyväskylä, Aalto University in Finland and Aarhus University in Denmark, published a paper in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience in 2015, finding a strong link between the music you listen to and your mental health.

While music therapists have been helping people regulate their mood disorders with certain kinds of music for years, people also likely to listen to music of their own choosing more often than that they have been ‘prescribed’. So could these other tunes be undoing the music therapy?

“Some ways of coping with negative emotion, such as rumination, which means continually thinking over negative things, are linked to poor mental health. We wanted to learn whether there could be similar negative effects of some styles of music listening,” said Emily Carlson, the study’s main author.

The team assessed participants in the study’s mental health, noting levels of depression, anxiety and neuroticism, and then asked the participants what music they listened to in order to regulate their mood.

Their findings? Listening to negative music can result in an expression of said negativity – particularly in men.

“This style of listening results in the feeling of expression of negative feelings, not necessarily improving the negative mood,” said Dr Suvi Saarikallio, the study’s co-author.

The researchers also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to analyse what parts of the brain are active when listening to specific styles of music.

They found that men who listened to negative music as an expression of their feelings showed less activity in their medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), however females showed more activity in the mPFC.

“The mPFC is active during emotion regulation,” said Professor Elvira Brattico, the senior author of the study. “These results show a link between music listening styles and mPFC activation, which could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on the brain.”

The conclusion seems to be that prescribed music is similar to prescribed drugs – if you’re suffering from illness, it can certainly be helpful, but self-prescribing might make things worse.

“We hope our research encourages music therapists to talk with their clients about their music use outside the session,” said Emily Carlson, “and encourages everyone to think about the how the different ways they use music might help or harm their own well-being.”

What do you think – does listening to sad and aggressive music help you thrash out all the negativity and leave you feeling refreshed, or is this a total lightbulb moment for you, and you’re now clearing the goth section from your CD collection?

About the author

Joe was Junior Vice-President at Compu-Global-Hyper-Mega-Net until it was bought out by Bill Gates. He now subedits for Conversant Media and considers it a step up.

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