My son and I shared odd, eclectic tastes in music. Until he hit 15 or 16, and started learning to drive. At some point, we switched off the radio and talked, instead – at his request. And I loved this! Imagine talking with your teen on a long road trip. How many parents are so lucky? I didn’t notice, though, that my usual level of anxiety in heavy traffic was beginning to creep into my daily, suburban commute. It slowly, over several years, turned into active avoidance of more than the occasional trip downtown. An accident, where I was t-boned by an SUV while driving my little Honda Accord Hybrid, did not help.
At some point, my son mentioned that driving with the radio on was calming. Not classical music. Not our old novelty song and sea chantey playlist. Not upbeat 50s rock. Classic rock. Classic rock soothed the nerves.
I had nothing to lose. I turned my car radio back on, for the first time in years. I built a Spotify playlist of my favorite driving tunes. At first, accustomed as I was to silence and road noise, it was distracting. And then, it was as if the part of my brain that was always silently screaming, “We’re gonna crash! We’re all gonna die!!” was the part that was distracted. I started singing along. It became the rhythm of my morning commute. And many of the same songs I’d used to help me keep pace while walking for exercise now served to keep me in the groove behind the wheel.
That’s when I discovered that most of them were either in the 75-85 bpm range, 118-130 bpm, or around 175-180 bpm. Strong rhythms, music that might otherwise be called “angry” or “ponderous” make me happy. I dislike “delicate” piano music (without orchestral or symphonic backup, at any rate), and too much dissonance grates on my nerves worse than fingernails on a chalkboard. I make rare exceptions to this; I love the Montagues & Capulets from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. Ominous as that sounds, you’d think it would increase anxiety, not decrease it.
Whatever works, right?
Slow, peaceful, soothing, “Muzak” tempos annoy me to no end. They make me feel antsy and impatient. I associate them with waiting rooms and bad news. I wonder if I am alone in this, and after what amounts to admittedly skimming the literature via Google, I think that maybe I’m not. In Influence of Tempo and Rhythm, found that respondents rated the emotion felt while listening to certain selections of music as “Sadness,” the music itself was rated as Boring, Expressionless and Relaxing. “Boring and Expressionless perfectly fit under a negative emotional impression, but Relaxing is a positive feeling.” On the other side of the spectrum, where respondents named “Happiness” as the emotion, they described the music as “Stressing, Expressive and Amusing.” Maybe I’m not the only one who gets happier listening to Tchaikovsky than to Chopin.
How to create a stress-reducing playlist, by Jenni Rook, MT-BC, LCPC, matches with my own trial-and-error experimentation. In fact, she points out that many of us use music therapy intuitively, and that it is a very personal thing. Your mood-lifting, anxiety-reducing playlist won’t be the same as mine, because in addition to the rhythm and tonal effects of music on mood and brain chemistry, the associations we’ve built with certain songs, and certain types of music, over a lifetime, have a significant effect on how music affects our moods.
The distraction my workout and driving playlists provide, though, for the jumpy little corners of my mind, doesn’t work for times when I’m doing brainwork. Text mining or writing, for example. I cannot listen to music that has lyrics, but even there, I need to set a certain tone, and some of those musical annoyances described above still apply. My work and writing playlist, for example, has no lyrics. It is symphonic, and I have a strong preference for movie and video game soundtracks or ballet scores. I lean towards storytelling music – music with themes. I remember analyzing the “characters” in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. It doesn’t just distract from anxiety, it sets a tone for the characters and story that I’m developing, without adding the distraction of someone else’s words.
Why do people so often choose to listen to sad, even tragic songs when their hearts are aching? Are they seeking to wallow in depression or grief? No, “[L]istening to sad music actually causes our brains to produce the same neurochemical that is released when we cry. This chemical, prolactin, helps to elicit feelings of comfort, meaning that listening to a sad song when we are feeling down not only provides empathy, it is causing our brains to start to try to make us feel better!” This is not unlike the studies that have shown how reading classic literature, which focuses on the internal thoughts and emotions of the characters, lights up all areas of the brain, “tricking” it into believing it is having the same experiences as the characters and helping to develop empathy.
In this sense, “happy” music and “sad” music may eventually lead the listener to the same place, whereas music that doesn’t resonate with a listener irritates precisely because it’s perceived to lack empathy. If we can’t sync ourselves with the soundtrack, then perhaps it isolates us and exacerbates the negative emotions and mental states, instead.
Choose your playlists carefully, thoughtfully, then.