Music listening and controling your emotions

It is time for another post about music listening. A few weeks ago, I wrote a post about a paper that looked at how we regulate our emotions by listening to ironically enjoyed music. Just recently, I made a playlist especially for songs I listened to a lot when I was younger. I can laugh at now because, surprisingly, I had a very bad taste in music when I was fourteen.

However I, and probably many others, do not just listen to music for ironic reasons. Music can be used for several different purposes. Maybe you, like me, have a special playlist to help you focus on work, one that pumps you up for a good workout, one for every kind of mood, and so on (I have a lot of playlists).

But a very important aspect of music is the emotions that it elicits and the way it can help regulate your emotions. Just take a look at the mood playlists on spotify. While the largest amount of mood playlists seem to promote that they boost your happiness, some of them are also created to fit those days that life just sucks and you want to wallow in your feelings for a bit.

Whatever the reason is for putting on a song people can either let the song bring out all the emotions that it elicits (enhancement) or they might try to stop those feelings (suppression). These are two emotion-regulation strategies that everyone uses, but the effectiveness of such a strategy may also depend on the person that tries to use them.

So Karreman, Laceulle, Hanser and Vingerhoets in the paper “Effects of emotion regulation strategies on music-elicited emotions: An experimental study explaining individual differences” looked at how personality variables (i.e. neuroticism, extraversion, openness, and positive and negative trait affect intensity), age, gender, and educational level would influence how well suppression or enhancement strategies worked when someone was listening to music.

Data of 466 people was analysed of which 253 were female, age ranging from 18 to 71, and most of them were highly educated. These people were randomized over 3 conditions in which they listened to “stairway to heaven” by Led Zeppelin, and were asked to either just listen to the music (neutral), ignore any feelings (suppression), or feel all the emotions that they might have when listening to the song (enhancement). All participants rated their emotions before and after listening to the song.

This song, ‘stairway to heaven’ was chosen because it is both popular in the Netherlands and evokes either strong positive or negative emotions in people. As people are randomly put in the three conditions it means that the researchers can focus on just the effectiveness of the strategy unrelated to the emotion that the music elicits. For example using a happy song would only give an insight in how well people can suppress or enhance emotions during happy music, but by using a song that elicits both, both directions are considered. This way the researchers could look at the change in emotion intensity, and if negative or positive emotions change depending on the emotion regulation strategy, but not the emotional value of the song.

The first thing that is important, is that using the enhancement strategy does indeed intensify any felt emotion that a person had before the song, which was not the case for people that used suppression or just listened to the song without trying to regulate their emotions.

But indeed some individual differences were found! Not every strategy worked the same for everyone. Some variables did not seem to influence how effective a strategy was, such as gender, negative trait affect intensity and level of openness. But the others did show some significant results.

While the enhancement strategy was related to a higher increase in emotion intensity for both people with low and high extraversion, people with high extraversion showed a smaller increase in emotion intensity when they applied the enhancement strategy compared to those with a low level of extraversion.

The second personality trait that might influence the change in intensity of emotion during music listening is positive trait affect intensity. As the name of the trait implies having a high level of this trait means you feel positive emotions such as excitement more intensely compared to people that have a low level. Results in this study suggest that a low positive trait affect intensity was related to a small decrease in emotion intensity in both the neutral and suppression condition, while in the enhancement condition it was related to an increase in intensity. The opposite was true for people with a high score on positive trait intensity. Thus people that have the tendency to feel positive emotions more intensely have less success when trying to suppress the emotions elicited by music.  

Gender did not have any effect on the effectiveness of strategies, but in terms of age only  younger people seemed to show an increase in emotion intensity after applying the enhancement strategy. For the suppression strategy or in the neutral condition no age differences were found.

But what mood boosting spotify lists promote is not just an increase in already present emotions, but a decrease in negative and increase in positive emotions. No changes in positive emotions were found, but people scoring high on neuroticism showed a larger decrease in negative emotions after listening to the song compared to people low on neuroticism. This was especially true for those that applied the enhancement strategy. People with lower scores on neuroticism only showed a decrease in negative emotions when they were in the suppression condition.

Using less scientific terms; you can intensify the feelings you already have by listening to music and just letting yourself feel the emotions the song elicits.  This is especially true for people that are young, introverted and do not feel positive emotions very intensely.

In addition, highly neurotic people might benefit the most from venting their emotions and using the enhancement strategy, as for them it reduced negative feelings.


So, spotify playlists are not wrong. Your mood is indeed boostable with music.     


If you want to read the full article, it can be found on google scholar using this reference:

Karreman, A., Laceulle, O. M., Hanser, W. E., & Vingerhoets, A. J. (2017). Effects of emotion regulation strategies on music-elicited emotions: An experimental study explaining individual differences. Personality and Individual Differences114, 36-41.

Or this link.

If you (or your university) don’t have access to this article, but you still really want to read it you can always e-mail the authors to request a copy!

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