If you're someone who's likely to be found with ear buds in her ears at all times, you might not realize just how often you listen to music, or the ways in which it's really affecting you. From your morning commute to the tunes you blast while you cook dinner, music can simultaneously be an activity and a complement to your daily life. Everyone has experienced a day when their mood reflects their playlist of choice (hello, Sufjan Stevens on a Monday and Beyoncé on a Friday), but can music change your mood, on a chemical level?
As it turns out, a person's relationship with the music they choose to listen to is totally related to their mood, although it's definitely one of those chicken-or-the-egg situations: Your music doesn't exactly define or change your mood, but rather, your music choice is likely to be defined by your mood. In other words, your mood usually comes first, and the music selection follows as a result. Or, as Adrian North, head of School of Psychology and Speech Pathology at Curtin University, told Huffington Post Australia, "If someone is in a grumpy mood and is determined to be in a grumpy mood, simply playing them a happy song is not going to shift that."
Your music can accentuate the mood you're already in, but it might not necessarily be able to change your mood entirely.
For example, when you're feeling sad, you might notice you're more likely to want to listen to, say, some soft Celine Dion tracks, rather than try to force yourself into a new mood by playing the latest Cardi B jam. That's not just anecdotally true, BTW; a 2016 study published in the journal PLOS One demonstrated this exact concept. The research revealed that people in sad moods are more likely to play sad music, and more specifically, they're likely to experience one of three reactions to the sad music: "comforting sorrow," "sweet sorrow," and "grief-stricken sorrow." In other words, playing music that matches your mood can often be extremely comforting. On the other hand, though, it can also just make a bad mood feel even worse.
Now, this isn't to say music has no effect on your mood whatsoever. A 2011 study from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands revealed that listening to music can literally affect your perception of the world in some instances. According to ScienceDaily, the results of this study showed that, "even if there is nothing to see, people sometimes still see happy faces when they are listening to happy music and sad faces when they are listening to sad music."
Of course, as you may have gathered, these two studies are sort of in conflict with one another: If a person "sees" happiness, so to speak, when they listen to happy music, why wouldn't they want to play that music when they're feeling sad?
The simple answer is, ironically, that's it's complicated. As Professor North noted to Huffington Post Australia, your relationship with music is extremely complex, and there's no simple explanation for why you like the music you like, or why you choose to listen to some songs over others when you're feeling a certain way.
Plus, once you've listened to a song multiple times, there are several factors that can play into how that song makes you feel, and even how it affects your mood.
North told Huffington Post Australia,
If, for instance, a "relaxing" song was playing on the car radio at the moment you hurtled over a cliff, for the rest of your life that piece of music is likely to be unsettling for you.
In other words, a happy song can only be "happy" to you, if you associate it with happy memories. Similarly, you might listen to sad songs when you're feeling sad, not because you want to be more upset, but because the music comforts you or reminds you of a specific memory.
Of course, another point of contention is what exactly defines "happy" or "sad" music: According to North, "happy" music is usually "upbeat" and "active," while "sad" music is considered to be more "sleepy" and "relaxing." This makes sense, since upbeat music can increase your heart rate, which is why most people opt for fast-tempo music when they work out. But everyone is different, and therefore everyone's perception of things is different, including the way they think about and respond to certain types of music.
The main point here is that your relationship with the music you listen to is multifaceted and complicated, meaning you're not automatically a "happy" person because you listen to Beyoncé, nor are you a Debbie-downer just because you're a big fan of Sam Smith. The best thing you can do is pay attention to the music that makes you feel good, and try to lean into those songs as often as you can. And remember, there's nothing wrong with crying along to Adele songs every now and then — we've all been there.