Speaker Brigette Worthen explains a psychological study on how listening to sad music affects your mood during Active Mind's M&M: Music and Melodies event. Janine Ybanez/HIGHLANDER
Speaker Brigette Worthen explains a psychological study on how listening to sad music affects your mood during Active Mind’s M&M: Music and Melodies event.
Janine Ybanez/HIGHLANDER

When you hear the term “mood enhancer,” the thought of a prescription drug probably pops up in your head. While pills and supplements can elevate your mood, taking them is not the only method you can use to become happy or relaxed. Listening to music is a perfectly natural way to lift one’s spirits that doesn’t include side effects or any risks.

Music and Melodies, a lecture hosted by The Well, occurred on Thursday, April 28 in HUB 260, and discussed how music can enhance one’s mood, energy and concentration. Brigette Worthen, the speaker at the event, also discussed how music can make us feel sad, angry or intolerant and how it can affect us differently based on cultural experiences.

“Through M&M, we really give a nice angle (of mental health issues) to make students more comfortable and understandable of other (treatment) methods besides therapy and medication,” said Jillian Rausa, fourth-year biology major and co-chair of The Well.

Worthen started off by showing a YouTube video titled, “The Mental and Emotional Effects of Music.” The video said that we are wired to respond to music and demonstrated this with the fact that happy music releases the neurotransmitter serotonin, which heightens joy, empathy and love.

The video also mentioned that music stimulates the hippocampus, or the brain’s long-term memory storage center, which explains why certain songs evoke strong, sometimes forgotten, memories.

Worthen then engaged the audience by asking us to close our eyes and listen to selected songs. The first song she played was “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars, and when it was done playing, she asked the audience how the song made them feel. Interestingly, all of the responses were related to experiences rather than feelings directly elicited by the song. Some of these included, “It made me feel embarrassed because I had a terrible dance performance to this song” and “It made me nervous because this was my song to walk out to in a school fashion show.”

The next subject regarding the relationship between music and mood was fear. Citing information from multiple studies, “Music is more effective in creating feelings than visuals alone,” especially in horror movies.

In another activity in which we were asked to close our eyes, we listened to a Resident Evil theme song in which an eerie chime sound found in many horror movies played over a beat that sounded like an electric gun being shot. As expected, the song made people think of Halloween, “a horror movie with a monster in it” and “walking through a hallway, waiting for something to pop up.”

We then moved on to a slide titled, “Music and Sadness.” In a study conducted by Garrido and Schubert, high ruminators, or people who think deeply about what they are experiencing, experienced higher levels of sadness after listening to downbeat songs than non-ruminators.

The next song that Worthen played was an instrumental track from the movie, “Schindler’s List.” The song involved a tender violin piece that faded into a sharper, even more evocative piano solo.

Although Worthen stated that the song had a sad tone, not all audience members felt this way about it. One audience member said he thought the music was relaxing and explained this by saying that when he studies, he can’t listen to anything that has lyrics because he finds himself getting absorbed in the story. Other responses included, “I imagined a character dying” and “I thought of a happy ending.” The variance in emotional responses to the song demonstrated how personal experiences impact the way we listen to music.

Worthen next discussed the relationship between music and stress. She stated that music can either release cortisol, the main stress chemical, or decrease it. In a process known as entrainment, music attempts to synchronize its listener to the rhythm of the music in order to affect our physiological responses such as heart rate.

To assess this, Worthen performed an experiment in which she asked us to read a passage while we listened to two different songs, the first being an exuberant techno remix and the second being a soothing acoustic song. Responses to the first song included, “The words and volume were distracting” and “I didn’t absorb the information the first time so I had to read it twice.” People said that the second song made them sleepy and that it was very slow so they paid more attention to what she said more than the first one.

The last point that Worthen made was that the way we respond to music can be affected by cultural experiences. The way we identify with styles, artists and lyrics can cause us to accept a song that someone with a different background would reject.

The last song of the presentation was “Born This Way” by Lady Gaga. An audience member said, “I felt numb to this song because I’ve heard it so many times.” This exemplified how the song’s cultural value as a highly played, mainstream song made people respond to it faintly.

Music plays a substantial role in how we feel. In fact, the process known as entrainment can cause our physiological reactions to synchronize with music. Therefore, we should be mindful of the music we listen to on a regular basis because it may be impacting our lives in more ways than we are aware of.