Music – how depressing is it really?

It’s a common thing. Break up with a partner or have a terrible day at work and many of us choose to curl up and listen to music that reflects or counters our mood.
But music is not all about making us feel happier (or at least understood). It can act to trigger or exaggerate negative emotions.
One scientific study showed that observer’s emotional reactions and brain responses to sad or frightening photos were increased with appropriate music [1].
If you don’t believe just how much of an emotional mood is created with music, try turning off the soundtrack to a horror movie. The killer is barely frightening and often comical without the spooky soundscape. Another quick experiment is to play a video game (such as tetris) with the sound off. It seems much slower without the rapid music (of advanced levels) to induce panic or stress.

Another study showed that this could affect how you perceived your relation with others. Sad music was shown to make people feel that a neutral photo was distressed and more likely to reject them, whereas happy music would make the person in the same photo seem happy and inviting [2]. To extrapolate then, listening to a lament or sad song on the way to work could make you feel that your subway companions don’t want to get to know you, thus making you feel more isolated and unwanted. Perhaps people with happier music on their ipods have more friends?

Probably the most extreme example on depressing music is one which compared suicide rates in US cities with the proportion of country music played on the radio [3]. The higher the amount of country music played, the higher the suicide rate amongst white people. The authors suggest that country music may “nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with
problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and
alienation from work”. Personally I think people were just depressed as there was nothing decent on the radio. But who asked me?
[1] Baumgartner T, Lutz K, Schmidt CF, Jancke L (2006) The emotional power of music: how music enhances the feeling of affective pictures. Brain Res. 23;1075(1):151-64. Epub 2006 Feb 3.
[2] Bouhuys AL, Bloem GM, Groothuis TG (1995) Induction of depressed and elated mood by music influences the perception of facial emotional expressions in healthy subjects. J Affect Disord. 33(4):215-26.

Jim Gundlach, J. – author, Steven Stack (1992) The Effect of Country Music on Suicide. Social Forces. 71(1): 211.



Filed under Curious Science, Science

2 responses to “Music – how depressing is it really?

  1. Check out the Hungarian “suicide song:”

    The english version doesn’t seem to have the same effect on people from my readings on this subject.


  2. Most country music is very depressing. My daughter plays it day in and day out and it drives me and the rest of my family nuts! Gag me with a pitchfork, please!
    The songs about love gone bad and the drinking binges afterwards are the worst. The twanginess makes me want to climb the walls!
    Other cultures have sad songs but American country music is the worst. (Is that way so many Americans are on anti-depressants?)
    BTW I heard the original Hungarian “suicide” song on Youtube. Sad, yes, but not like country music. Here’s the link if you’re interested:

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