A new brain imaging study verifies what we all understand intuitively: Different types of music influence our emotions. Aggressive and sad music in particular, the researchers discovered, inspired anxiety and neuroticism, most especially in some guys.

The World Health Organization has reported that half of all people diagnosed with psychiatric illnesses do not receive adequate treatment. Meanwhile, psychiatric drugs don’t work for some people and work less than perfectly for others. This leaves “a substantial gap that could be partially filled by the validation and development of music-based treatments,” explained a team of researchers from University of Jyväskylä and Aalto University (both in Finland), and Aarhus University (in Denmark).

Since we all know music moves us, deeply affecting our emotions, music therapy might be helpful for any mental disorder that disrupts our moods.

However, it may not be a simple fix. After all, there’s a rich history of past research demonstrating the ways in which healthy and mentally ill people differ when processing negative experiences, the researchers explained. For instance, “cognitive reappraisal” — where you reimagine an experience as less negative than it was — is linked to a decreased risk of depression, the researchers explained, while "rumination" — where you continually think about negative things —is linked to an increased risk of depression. Healthy people tend to use the former technique, while disordered people might favor the latter.

Meanwhile, gender differences complicate this picture, noted the researchers. While performing cognitive reappraisal exercises, women show increased brain activity in their prefrontal and striatal areas and men show decreased amygdala response. (The amygdala is where our most primal emotions form.) 

Aware of all these details, the researchers designed an experiment to explore how different ways of listening to music might affect our feelings in a lasting way.

Your Taste in Music Matters

A total of 123 participants (68 females), between the ages of 18 and 55, completed psychological testing for depression, anxiety, and neuroticism, among other possible disorders, and also reported the ways they most often listened to music and also how they used it to air their feelings. Next, the researchers recorded the neural activity of 56 of the participants (via fMRI) while listening to a music stimulus: 30 soundtrack excerpts, with 10 each to represent happiness, sadness, and fear.

Generally, anxiety and neuroticism were higher in participants who listened to sad or aggressive music as a way to vent their emotions, particularly among the guys. Analyzing the results from the fMRI study, the researchers found visible differences between the men and the women participants. 

Notably, males who tended to listen to music to express negative feelings had less activity in the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC), while females who tended to listen to music as a distraction from negative feelings showed increased activity in the mPFC.

This link between music and mPFC could mean that certain listening styles have long-term effects on your brain, explained the research team. So, just as rumination leads to depression, your musical taste may be causing you anxiety and pain. Step away from the Emo! 

Source: Carlson E, Saarikallio S, Toiviainen P, et al. Maladaptive and adaptive emotion regulation through music: a behavioral and neuroimaging study of males and females. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2015.