After a long, frustrating day, few things can soothe the troubled mind like music. The uses vary: Sad songs can help some people find solace in grief. Upbeat songs can help others divert painful thoughts into happy ones. Aggressive music can help with channeling inner rage into a more manageable form. Yet not all these strategies we've developed for ourselves are entirely healthy, or equal in their ability to improve and regulate mood.
According to new research out of the University of Jyväskylä, Finland, the way you listen to music has a major impact on the relief you can actually get from it. Further, men and women tend to pursue very different methods of using music for mood regulation, and according to this study, women's may be a whole lot healthier.
The background: The essential question music psychologists Emily Carlson and Suvi Saarikallio asked in their research, as Saarikallio described it to Mic, was, "Is it always healthy for people to engage in music?"
The two had been working with music therapists administering to depressed adolescents. Carlson and Saarikallio noticed that not all of their patient's patterns of engaging music seemed to be productive. "They [would] get stuck in depressed thoughts and the music they chose encouraged that pattern of rumination," Saarikallio said. "We wanted to clarify this. Can we see how different ways of listening to music impact the brain differently?"
They turned to the Music in Mood Regulation scale, which Saarikallio created for a previous study, identifying seven separate ways individuals can use music to regulate their moods, focusing on the three methods aimed at relieving negative emotions. These include: discharge, or listening to aggressive music as a way to blow off steam; diversion, which uses music to distract from a negative mood and replace it with a positive one; and solace, or listening to music that matches a negative mood as a means to find comfort in it.
While monitoring 123 male and female participants through fMRIs while they engaged in these various techniques, researchers found that each strategy produced very different reactions in their subjects' brains.
The results: Women tended to use diversionary tactics far more than men. When they did, they enjoyed high activation in their medial prefrontal cortices — known to help mitigate depression.
Men, who rely more on diversionary strategies, did not see the same high activation in their mPFCs, proving it's not as effective of a strategy. Additionally, men who utilize discharge tactics had far lower activation in that region while listening to fearful, aggressive music. This led the researchers to the conclusion that this type of strategy would likely prolong their negative moods. Women who use discharge strategies did not experience this same reduced activation.
According to Saarikallio, she and Carlson don't entirely know what to make of their findings. There's not nearly enough data to say beyond a shadow of a doubt, but the results suggest that men may be less equipped to transition from negative to positive emotions through music than women are. More specifically, they said, attempting to externalize negative emotions by listening to aggressive music seems a particularly bad strategy for men, even though so many still try.
The outcomes didn't surprise Carlson. "The different results between men and women actually make sense with the previous research," she told Mic in an email. "We know that externalizing is a more male coping mechanism, for example, and discharge seems to be a very externalizing cognitive style."
"There are studies that show women in general use music for personal emotional contemplation, and men are use it for positive distraction and positive energy and a badge of identity," Saarikallio said. "So maybe there is gender difference that women may be able to use music more for emotional processing then men, who may not be able to draw connections out of music that reflects their emotional state."
More research is needed to clarify these findings, specifically in terms of the role gender plays in the reactions Carlson and Saarikallio saw. However, they still do present an opportunity for individuals to examine the way they use music in their personal lives. "We may get used to certain regulatory patterns, but it doesn't mean we are doomed to stick with them," Saarikallio told Mic, adding that sad or aggressive negative music is not without merit. Both men and women can use it to try to find solace in their negative moods.
"[Our listening patterns] can be changed," Saarikallio said. "The key message we wanted to bring to the general public was to encourage people to look into their own musical behaviors and ask themselves 'Does this make me feel better?' and then change them."