The “musical friend” in times of need: Listening to music can help to improve mood.

Blog post on mystic psychology. The effect of music on our emotions

As the title suggests, music can help with affect and empathy. There are differences in the type of music which can help or hinder. Some music may in fact, be distracting rather than comforting. Schäfer et al (2020) conducted research investigating affect and its reaction to music. We all have turned to music listening at some point in our lives. Music is used at special events, occasions and when just out with friends, parties, social gatherings. The list can be endless. Music can help us to pass the time such as driving or catching public transport, but have you ever wondered how powerful music is on our mood? Do you turn to music when you are down? Maybe this will help you to understand why music can be so important to all of us at some point in our lives.

People often turn to music when they are lonely (Taruffi & Koelsch, 2014). Research also suggests that song lyrics can help to emotionally support oneself. These research participants often feel that specific lyrics apply to their lives (Lippman & Greenwood, 2012).  Furthermore, music can often be described as mood-congruent when the style and context of the music fits a current mood, such as happiness or sadness (Van den Tol & Edwards, 2011). 

Sad music

Interestingly, sad music has been linked to personality traits. For example, liking for sad music has been linked to openness to experiences, likeness for art and beauty has been linked to a preference for sad music Vuoskoski et al., 2012).  Additionally, enjoyment of sad music is associated with the tendency to ruminate and become deeply absorbed in experiences (Garrido & Schubert, 2011a, 2013a). These findings are not always consistent.  Listening preferences are also influenced by situational circumstances and musical selection bias. Personality and styles of emotional regulation can be affected by musical preferences and situation. Generally, individuals will seek out mood-congruent activities or friends to share feelings and validate their emotions. In some cases, music listening can be a surrogate mood-congruent activity.

Event characteristics may influence music choice. For example, sadness from a work-related failure increases the desire for work-related activities (Gray et al., 2011). Sadness from a social loss heightens the desire for social connectedness and interaction (Gray et al., 2011; Rime, 2009). Individuals use music to repair their mood. 

Music can be a virtual friend. Following on from music listening as a mood-congruent activity, music can be thought of as that invisible friend in times of need. This has been proposed by several theorists. Music can act as a shared affective emotion, conveying the presence of another person (Overy & Molnar-Szakacs, 2009) and a form of social encounter (Wallmark et al., 2018). This s viewed in two ways. The first way is the the listener experiences the music as a virtual other, like a companion who they identify with. The other way is that the listener identifies with the performer or composer or the music (Scherer & Zentner, 2001). Either wya, these musical experiences allow for empathy, increased reflective thinking and functioning.

Music May Reduce Loneliness and Act as Social Surrogate for a Friend

To test this hypothesis of music to reduce loneliness and act as a social surrogate, Schäfer et al (2020) induced sadness on a group of participants via the use of imagery and music. The imagery included social loss (loved one dying), non-social loss (loss of eyesight), and a control condition (grocery shopping). After mood induction, a listening task was introduced using either comforting or distractingly music.  Measures for mood were taken prior and after to mood induction on listening tasks.

The results of the experiment found a significant decrease in loneliness irrespective of the listener’s mood (social loss, non-social loss, control) or the applied listening strategy (comfort or dictation). In fact there was an increase in the listener’s mood state and empathy regardless of listening strategy. However, music listening in general affected momentary loneliness and empathy in a predicted manner. 

Participants reported feeling less lonely and more empathic after listening to self-selected music regardless of their prior mood and listening strategy applied. The two listening strategies used by the researchers did not work as predicted. When participants listened to their personal music, there was a change in mood and empathy irrespective of the prevailing (induced) mood state. Furthermore, distracting music seems to be able to reduce feelings of loneliness as we as comforting music. This finding differs with prior research and this maybe due to the methodological approach taken for the current study. 


In terms of empathy the participants in Schäfer’s study felt their empathic feelings were enhanced by self-selected music and by imagining the death of a loved one. This finding appears to support the notion of music as a social surrogate and that listening can invoke social processes in the absence of social interaction. 

Heightened empathy after a listening experience makes music valuable resource and tool for some for mood repair. Participants reported higher levels of relaxation after listening to self-selected music. The two listening strategies were indistinguishable from each other in terms of mood effect. This finding suggests that music, despite its content, can foster mood improvement. This implies that even when sad music is chosen it is compatible with mood improvement and mood repair.

Private engagement of music listening improved listeners mood and empathic processes. There appears to be a beneficial effect of musical engagement as music can act as a social surrogate in the absence of sympathetic others. Indeed, music is a “musical friend” in times of need.

Schäfer, K., Saarikallio, S., & Eerola, T. (2020). Music May Reduce Loneliness and Act as Social Surrogate for a Friend: Evidence from an Experimental Listening Study. Music & Science, 3.

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